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  • Chris ORourke

Swan Lake

Moscow City Ballet's Swan Lake. Image uncredited.


Girl Power

It’s a dream week for ballet lovers as Moscow City Ballet’s The Tchaikovsky Trilogy graces the stage at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre as part of their 2020 tour. With the Moscow City Ballet Orchestra bringing Tchaikovsky’s much loved music to life, MCB present "Swan Lake," The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker performed on different days. Understandably "Swan Lake" dominates with the lion’s share of dates. Tchaikovsky's 1877 tale of the star crossed lovers Odette and Prince Siegfried, tricked by the evil Rothbart, is, for many, the standard bearer for ballet. An exacting standard which MCB’s prima ballerina, Lilia Orekhova, personifies, and from whom some of the corps des ballet could learn much.

From its inception in 1988, MCB has sought to honour and preserve the traditions of classical Russian ballet, while adding some of its own personality to keep things fresh. If that freshness doesn’t quite translate to Natalia Povago’s design or Elisaveta Dvorkina’s classic costumes, it informs the choreography richly. With Lev Ivanov and Maruis Petipa’s choreographic templates forming the foundation, with added inspiration from legendary choreographers Agrippina Vaganova and Yuri Grigorovich, "Swan Lake" finds Natalia Ryzhenko and MCB founder Victor Smirnov-Golovanov adding their own choreography stylings, looking to release latent energies not always tapped into. Particularly Smirnov-Golovanov, whose fingerprints are found everywhere. Especially in the double edged principal of ‘allowing dancers to use their own character delineation, whilst adhering faithfully to the original choreography.’ Exposing the individuality at the heart of the dancer. Sometimes at the risk of the dance.

It’s an approach that takes a moment to get your head around. With classical ballet being a rigorous and exacting art, relying on form and grace to craft moments of beauty, MCB’s "Swan Lake" can look a little untidy in the first act where Siegfried celebrates his 21st birthday amidst courtly friends and potential wives. Choreographically highlighting its principals and soloist, each one often excellent, the whole exudes a sense of relaxed focus. Yet under Smirnov-Golovanov and Ryzhenko direction, a flow of energy is released, offering a fresh dynamism. Even if something still feels a little off.

Act Two makes things clearer as Siegfried sets off into the forest and spies the cursed Odette transform from a white swan into beautiful young woman. Here the corps des ballet, taking their lead from the incomparable prima ballerina Lilia Orekhova, are on a whole other level. It's as if Orekhova’s presence forces everyone to raise their game. And the corps des ballet respond with rigour and precision, the dance of the little swans being a little moment of near perfection. As Odette transforms back to a swan, with the evil Rothbart already plotting how to make Siegfried break his vow to rescue her, you don’t want to leave and return to the palace.

Act Three makes clear why. If principals deliver some exacting solos the corps des ballet once again look ragged in places compared to Act Two. Prompting the realisation that the only difference is the inclusion of male dancers in the corps during Acts One and Three. While female corps members aren’t entirely exempt from moments of laxness, with the males it's often a case of hands and positions, landings and timing, looking like loosely agreed arrangements. Taking up Smirnov-Golovanov’s principle of individual expression while disregarding his insistence on a rigour in service of the choreography. Something female corps members understand instinctively, the entrance of arms folded at the wrists revealing an array of personalities, each subsumed during the various pas.

As before, the arrival of Orekhova as Rothbart’s duplicitous daughter Odile, disguised as Odette, changes the temperature for the better. In a wonderful sequence showing some inspired costuming by Dvorkina, Orekhova’s black and white swan makes for a striking visual, mirrored in Siegfried and Rothbart whose synchronised movements suggest a host of interpretive possibilities. Finally returning as the black swan looking to trick Siegfried into swearing his love to her, Orekhova is spellbinding, her sinister and seductive transformation luring you helplessly into her divinely dark web. Dancing within restrictive choreographic parameters, one defined by repetition rather than variation, Orekhova executes movements sublimely, her fouettés being particularly impressive, as she seduces the unknowing Siegfried into proposing to her, condemning the innocent Odette to her doom.

The tragic unfolding in Act Four confirms the need for the male corps members to raise their game to the level of their female counterparts. Whose rigour of execution informs rather than contains, or merely decorates, the scenes between Odette, Siegfried and Rothbart. Especially the final moments. And as any aficionado knows, there have been several endings to “Swan Lake.” You’ll just have to go along to find out how this one ends.

"Swan Lake" shows both the rewards and dangers of Smirnov-Golovanov choreographic approach and gives much for innovators and classicists to ponder. Something even beginners can start to ruminate on courtesy of a terrifically informative programme. Containing a hugely accessible glossary of terms and techniques which help educate beginners cultivating an awareness of their own tastes and preferences.

Ballet is a demanding and unforgiving mistress. Arguably too demanding. But she expects exactitude and rigour and accepts no apologies, even within a more expressive frame. Prima ballerina Orekhova knows this well, but some others need to learn from her example. It’s not the first time a corps des ballet has let its soloist bear the weight of responsibility. But it is unusual to see such a clear divide between its male and female members. The talent is unquestionably there. Some need to step up. For when it comes together, Moscow City Ballet's “Swan Lake” makes it clear why Tchaikovsky’s classic has remained a much loved favourite for almost a century and a half. Thanks due, in this instance, to strong soloists, a sublime prima ballerina, and a whole lot of girl power.

Moscow City Ballet’s The Tchaikovsky Trilogy, featuring "Swan Lake," The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until Feb 15.

For more information, visit Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

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