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About the Change

Royal Danish Ballet

‘Swan Lake (Svanesøen)’

October 2010
Copenhagen, Operaen

by Jane Simpson

© David Amzallag

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Peter Martins made his version of Swan Lake for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996 and restaged it for New York City Ballet three years later, with some minor changes. Not much Danish critical writing filters out of Denmark, so the wider ballet world knows the production mainly through the opinions of the New York critics, few of whom have a good word to say for it. At home it's regarded more warmly, and director Nikolaj Hübbe has added to the attraction by showing five different casts during this autumn's long run - five new Siegfrieds, two new Odettes and a guest artist. Impossible to see them all, so I chose to save the new young talents for future seasons and concentrate on the more senior dancers. Both the performances I saw had the advantage of fine playing from the orchestra under the Estonian conductor Vello Pän: his account of the overture was a thrill in itself.

The production was made for the old Royal Theatre, but these days it's danced on the larger stage of the new Opera House. I'm told it is seen to much better advantage in this setting, and I can very easily believe it: the mood of the whole piece is defined by the painted front curtains and backdrops by the distinguished Danish artist and sculptor Per Kirkeby, which are wonderfully complemented by the glowing wood and rich blue of the auditorium. The panelled set for the third act, which I've seen described as dark and gloomy, also looks perfectly natural here - it could easily have just grown out of the surrounding walls. On the other hand I have every sympathy with those who find the costumes (by Kirkbye himself and Kirsten Lund Nielsen) hard to take, particularly those for Siegfried's friends in the first act: brightly coloured - very brightly coloured - emerald green tops and vermilion tights, or the other way round.They are supposedly inspired by the fashions of the early Renaissance, as worn in Florence; fortunately Kirkeby sees Swan Lake as a fantasy beyond the need for logic, and dresses the other courtiers in a non-specific but beautiful Baroque style.

The shape of this version is largely dictated by the joint wish of Martins and Kirkeby to run the ballet straight through with as little interruption as possible: so it's done in two long acts, with a very simple scene change from court to lakeside in each of them. (The second one, from the ballroom back to the lake, is rather beautiful in its own right - almost part of the choreography.) Martins has cut the time devoted to explaining the plot to the minimum. He's been accused of producing something that's little more than a suite of dances, and although that's not entirely true, he gives his leading dancers almost no help in telling their story: he offers them a blank page ands it's up to them what and how much they write on it. His choreography for what is usually Act 2 is 'after Balanchine' - very similar indeed, I understand, and I was very taken with the constantly changing patterns as well as by the fluidity and liveliness of the dancing; but the rest, apart from the Petipa Act 3 pas de deux, is his own. He introduces variety into the long Act waltz by including children from the ballet school, and his Act 4 - influenced also by Balanchine's style - has a fine ending, with Odette drawn back into her swan form as Siegfried is left alone to grieve. His classical set-pieces - the first act pas de trois, a new pas de quatre in Act 3 - are less successful: he seems to have an irresistible need to over-decorate and over-complicate, so that only the most technically secure dancers can avoid the impression that what they're doing is not only fiddly but also unnecessarily difficult.


Jurgita Dronina and Thomas Lund rehearsing Swan Lake
© David Amzallag

Hübbe is working his company hard this season - they have been learning Christopher Wheeldon's new Sleeping Beauty at the same time as dancing Swan Lake and soloist opportunities - challenges, perhaps - have been widely distributed. By the time I got there, late in the run, there were new faces from the corps de ballet to be seen in most of the female solos, some already finding their feet, others with more charm and enthusiasm than precision at present. The men, most of them rather further into their careers, were impressive: I'd pick out Constantine Baecher, leading the czardas, and Fernando Mora in the Spanish Dance, partly for their verve and style and partly because they both looked so good in their costumes. Nobody, I'd guess, looks good in the Russian man's outfit - a sort of gilet, bare chest, a skirt, purple underpants - a homage to Bakst, apparently (but why?). Sebastian Kloborg and Jean-Lucien Massot, on different nights, did all they could, and Massot gets extra kudos for wearing the little hat as well. Charles Andersen danced Benno at both performances - the role suits him very well and his dancing in the pas de trois is attractively clear, with a little turn of the head at the end of his last pirouettes giving a pleasing note of individuality. And then there's the Jester. I'd seen enough film of the production to know that there was a lot of the Jester, and I was braced for the usual blend of cuteness and coyness which sets my teeth on edge. But in fact the role is woven quite cleverly into the action and both Tim Matiakis and Jón Axel Fransson found light-hearted and really quite amusing characterisations - Matiakis reminded me of a large, friendly and very enthusiastic dog, Fransson was more of a licensed but very incompetent buffoon- as well as bringing off all the technical tricks one expects of a jester.

The two leading couples I saw each provided constrasts - extreme in some cases - of age, experience and style. Hübbe had invited the young Lithuanian ballerina, Jurgita Dronina (currently with the Dutch National Ballet) to dance with RDB principal Thomas Lund, and I saw the second of their two performances. Dronina, who is 24, is already almost a veteran Odette/Odile, whilst Lund, who is 36, had danced his first-ever Siegfried only the night before. Writing about him after an interview about three years ago, I forecast that Lund's lack of height would mean that he would never be cast in this role, or as Aurora's Prince: thanks to Hübbe and Wheeldon, he's been given both, within a month of each other, and I'm happily eating my words. It must have been hard for him, though: not only learning such an important role, with a partner he's never worked with before, but also doing it in the knowledge that it could well be for this run only - no time to develop an interpretation over the years - it's now or never. I would like to be able to report a triumph: in the event, though he brings some wonderful qualities to the role, there was too much working against him for total success. The costumes, for a start: for some reason Kirkeby dresses the Prince very plainly indeed, and in a style which does Lund no favours at all, so that he has to establish his status and authority entirely by strength of character. And he no longer looks like an ardent boy just coming of age, though I don't personally think that's actually a problem - it's very easy to find a reading of the story that fits an older man - but it does require some adjustments, both from him and from us. He's very good in the generally melancholy mood of the first act (with some unexpected lighter touches - he's the only Siegfried who's ever made me laugh), and his dancing through the whole ballet was fine, particularly when he could show off his fast, light jumps. The problem came with his interaction with Dronina, especially in Act 2: he acts, very convincingly, all the time, and she simply doesn't react, doing the whole act on one note of frozen grief and giving him nothing to feed on: the effect is to make him look as if he's overacting. Her dancing is spectacular, in the current fashion, and in Act 3 she came to life and made a sparky and sparkling Odile; but to conquer the double role she needs to find more variety of emotional expression.


Jurgita Dronina and Thomas Lund rehearsing Swan Lake
© David Amzallag
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The first night of this run was given to Gudrun Bojesen, now the company's prima ballerina in all but name, and 21-year-old Alban Lendorf, continuing his lightning-fast rise to the top. That was, I think, the first time they'd danced together but from the way they complement each other, only two or three performances later, I'd guess it will be far from the last. Lendorf is already a strong partner and though his acting at present lags behind his phenomenal technique it's clear and honest, and he has years and years ahead of him to fill out his interpretation. I was prepared for Bojesen's sympathetic, sad Odette, but her strong, dominant Odile took me quite by surprise. She smiles and smiles and knows she has this rather unsophisticated boy completely under her spell. She's much stronger technically than she sometimes lets show - not a virtuoso in Dronina's style, but well able to fire off a string of fast fouettés and to dazzle with the smoothness of her turns. And she's an accomplished and subtle actress, too, on a level which Lendorf can't yet match: she and Lund dance the last night of the run together in a few days and I can easily imagine that evening's audience getting the best dramatic pairing of all.

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