Having seen the BBC’s broadcast of Northern Ballet’s brilliant but unorthodox 1984 last week, a performance of Swan Lake is comparatively a safe pair of hands (feet?)… or so you’d think.
There was still a traditional vertigo-inducing theatre in the Leeds Royal, with music adapted faithfully from the original Tchaikovsky score; the new storyline is the 21st century clincher in Northern Ballet’s latest Swan Lake. Set somewhere around 1912, we see Anthony, traumatised in childhood by his brother’s tragic death, grappling with the gay undertones of his relationship with his best friend.
In spite of this, Act 1 came a bit too close to a Mary Poppins musical at times. After playing out the fatal accident, what felt like the rest of the act was given over completely to the male dancers for an manically jolly display of public school boy’s rough and tumble. It was great to see as much gymnastic choreography from the boys as we did light-footedness from the swans, though it was a solid seeming 55 minutes of white slacks and ball games.
The narrative really started to work when Oddette made her first appearance – as she emerged from the water, my first thought was that it was Anthony’s brother. I have never found Swan Lake a particularly easy plot to follow, but having a backstory to explain Anthony’s psyche helped me appreciate his character. This is also where I started noticing how the costume and set design came into play. Act 2 brought with it a stark, sharp contrast from the misty, purple water with richer coloured costumes set against tall white panels and ornate furniture. The true oppressiveness of this environment was shown pretty spectacularly in Anthony and Simon’s fight with red paint striking across the still canvas.
There was also the great moment when Odilia makes her comeback, turning around to show her black shawl and give herself away as the imposter.
I thought the performance was most beautiful where it was most abstract – as it closed with Anthony beneath the water. The dark, blue lighting and billowing sheets softened the orderliness of the swans lovely traditional patterns and by the end, they had completely taken me with them.