(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 19 April)
Northern Ballet has never forgotten that its original title was Northern Ballet Theatre. Artistic director David Nixon’s apprach to both the classics of the ballet repertoire and to commissioned new work uses the strength of the drama inherent in each plot just as much as the lyricism of the traditional choreography.
His casts need to act as well as dance. His new production of Swan Lake retains the outline of the Petipa and Ivanov scenario but with some very 21st century twists. Odette (Martha Leebolt at the performance I saw) is no fragile princess trapped by an evil magician.
Rather, she is in that seductive yet sinister tradition of the beautiful creature who materialises out of the water to lure a young man into her realm. From the naiads and sirens of Greek myth through those river-haunting undines and lorelei to the rusalye and the shape-shifting seal-women of Scandinavian legend – not to mention those familiar through Grimm and Andersen – they bring disaster for humans.
Idilia (Abigail Prudames) is of the earth but still vulnerable to rejection. Specifically she is of New England at the end of the 19th century. Both Anthony’s father (Hironao Takahashi) and mother (Victoria Sibson) want her to marry their son (Tobias Batley) who has grown into a personable but exceedingly troubled young man.
In childhood Anthony had seen his younger brother drown; now he haunts the lakeside where the tragedy occurred while coping with a realisation that his feelings for his best friend Simon (Nicola Gervasi) are trembling between accustomed comradeship and something much more passionate and sexual.
Horse-playing friends, with Ashley Dixon outstanding as the one who never quite pulls off the athleticism of the rest of the group, fail to involve Anthony in their sport. The choreography for the boys involves sequences of leaps and lifts, all very well executed with impeccable timing. Whirls and twirls pervade the pas de trois for Anthony, Simon and Odilia.
We revert to more familiar sequences when Anthony is once more alone at the lakeside. In the fading light Odette and her fellow “swans” emerge from the rushes and captivate Anthony. He overcomes his fear of the lake to join them, much to a returning Simon’s consternation.
At Anthony’s coming-of-age party, Odilia stands out among the preening young women in her white Parisian gown and the merrymaking culminates in another pas de trois for her with and equally entranced Simon which is both lyrical and demandingly intense.
By the third act, Odilia and Anthony have married, but he cannot escape the influence of Odette. Simon’s attempts to distract his friend simply result in a mutual and passionate embrace, which horrifies Odilia. Back at the lakeside, the dance of the four cygnets suggests embryonic vengeful Wilis as we return to the dance sequences for the swans.
Whether or not you count Anthony’s final plunge into their realm as a happy ending is a moot point. Dramatically, it all flows well enough, though the transitions from new, more contemporary choreography with the familiar 19th century one is not always seamless.
I had the impression that some audience members were slightly bemused. The Northern Ballet Sinfonia under Brett Morris made John Longstaff’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s score (with subtractions and additions) sound fresh and sympathetic to the performers on stage as well as in the pit. Dave Gillan’s designs and Peter Mumford’s clever lighting enhance the experience.
Swan Lake is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 23 April with matinées on 21 and 23 April. It can also be seen at the Milton Keynes Theatre between 26 and 30 April.