Swan Lake takes flight in Zurich

Schwanensee (Swan Lake)
Tchaikovsky (Music) Petipa, Ivanov and Ratmansky (Choreography)
Zurich Ballet
Zurich Opernhaus

It seems very appropriate for Zurich Ballet to be performing Swan Lake. The Opera House is right next to Lake Zurich, which at this time of year is filled with majestic swans gliding over the water.

Swan Lake is the tale of the bored Prince Siegfried, who chances upon a group of swans, young women who have been transformed into the birds by the evil Baron von Rothbart. Siegfried falls in love with their queen, Odette, but von Rothbart intervenes between the couple as he realises their love could break the control he has over the swans.

Rothbart then turns up at court with a simulacrum, Odile, who he passes off as Odette, getting Siegfried to commit himself to the imposter.

When Siegfried realises he has been duped, he and Odette dance with such passion that they are forced to throw themselves into the lake and enter another realm. Rothbart is overcome by the powerful wave of love exerted by the remaining swans and he is obliterated, possibly dissolving into the lake.

At times this new Zurich Ballet production appears to be almost slavish in its classical conservatism and this is a result of the new choreography by the Russian/American Alexi Ratmansky, who has carefully reconstructed the dance using the notations which Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov used for the 1895 production of Swan Lake in St. Petersburg. The programme booklet also included illustrations of these diagrammatic representations of the earlier choreographers' work.

Ballets like Swan Lake were created for the Russian Imperial Court and the audiences were presented with visions of several different worlds. One that was totally familiar was that of the court in all its finery and elegance, another was a world peopled by happy peasants who they rarely saw and the third one was one the parallel of myths and legends imbued with the exotic and the corrupt from which they were protected.

So, Swan Lake exists as a tale of exotic love but is also as a cautionary tale of what befalls those who stray from the norms of social and court behaviour, and are corrupted by the outside world.

The ballet is also about the pursuit of true love and the notions of pure beauty and the invention of the swans allowed Tchaikovsky and the choreographers an opportunity to combine strands of musical and visual beauty.

The aim of any production should be to portray those different worlds in a way that links them but also makes them distinct. Central to this is the role performed by Odette/Odile with the dancer having to create both a figure of beauty and virtue (Odette) as well as that of a corrupted figure (Odile).

In the dual role of Odette/Odile, the Italian dancer, Marina Arduino, was breathtaking. As Odette she conveyed the distress of being under the spell of Rothbart as well as the ecstasy of being in love. Her initial pas de deux with Siegfried was achingly beautiful, featuring exquisite high lifts and suspended arabesques. 
As the black swan, Odile, she was a cool automaton dancing with sensuous and flirtatious poses, displaying herself both to Siegfried and the audience with a showiness that expressed the sexual predator rather than the romantic lover.

In both roles she appeared to have total empathy with the music, allowing her arms, legs and torso to display a fluidity and grace that captured the idea of the swan she is supposed to be. The elegance and simplicity of her dancing created an ethereal and graceful character. By contrast, Odile, her black swan counterpart was more of the temptress and, in the big lifts and sharper movements, there was an expression of sensuality and ecstasy.

As well as being technically accomplished, she showed she could use her upper body to great effect in conveying fragile emotional states. In Act II her quivering arms and legs seemed to indicate a mixture of fear and apprehension, and in Act IV her limpid swan's pose conveyed not only defeat but sexual submission.

She was aided by a vigorous performance by French dancer Kevin Pouzou, who created a marvellously drawn Prince Siegfried. In the first act he was clearly more in love with his crossbow and hunting than the proffered potential brides and in the court scenes where he reflected on the demands of court and the need to be deferential to his mother, his demeanour was that of a man without direction and his dancing expressed his fateful future. However, his dancing became electrified when he encountered Odette, with athletic leaps and elaborate movements expressing passion and joy, dancing with a mixture of regal aplomb and macho brilliance.

In this production the opening scene of the peasants celebrating Siegfried's birthday was danced with much vitality and colour, the stage awash with floral tributes. However, the energy of the dancers was diluted somewhat by the introduction of small stools for the dancers to perform on. One feature that did work but only briefly was the addition of a colourful maypole.

As Benno, the prince’s friend, American Wei Chen displayed some enthusiastic leaps and clever timing and his pas de trios with Giulia Tonelli and Elizabeth Wisenberg provided a sophisticated display.

The court scene featured the traditional set of folk dances, which normally sit uncomfortably with contemporary audiences unused to the tradition of dance within a dance. However, the sheer scale of the dancing was impressive, with up to nine dancers in some of the sequences.

Manuel Renard as Rothbart gave a dynamic display, with rough angular movements which contrasted strongly with those of Kevin Pouzou. Unfortunately, he was not as well used as he could have been during the court dance scenes where he merely watched the proceedings, only occasionally demonstrating his manipulation of Odile.

The corps de ballet gave a stunning display as the swans, and their formations, giving a sense of birds in formation that was at times almost militaristic and at others they replicated the swift flickering of massed birds in flight.

With quivering legs, fluttering arms and shimmering tutus they floated around the stage creating beautifully controlled flowing shapes and patterns. Sometimes they were like frenetic, frightened birds and at others they provided strength as they grouped around the two lovers as though protecting their young.

The Philharmonia Zurich provided a stirring musical accompaniment, allowing Tchaikovsky’s music to enfold the dancers.

Forthcoming ballet productions: Bella Figura (Jiri Kylian) Emergence (Sol Leon, Paul Lightfoot, Crystal Pite) Giselle, Nijinski, Nutcracker and Mouseking, Romeo and Juliet, Winter.

This is supplied content and not commissioned or paid for by NBR.