Festival Theatre, Edinburgh – until 28 May 2016
Bold and surprising, David Dawson has completely reworked Swan Lake for Scottish Ballet, cutting away the fat of its fusty baggage, although he discards some elements of clarity at the same time.
Tchaikovsky fans need not worry though: the score is intact. And while it does not always reinforce the ballet’s new dramatic ebb and flow as much as it might, Dawson allows it to shine and has a couple of moments of pure genius.
There is no sidling up to the audience for this retelling. It arrives big and bold as the orchestral introduction rises to its peak, the slow roll of snare seeming to lift the plain black cloth to reveal a stage filled with the criss-crossed steel strutting of some mighty bridge.
There, projecting all the cares of youth forlorn, is Christopher Harrison’s Siegfried: moping around as the bridge’s steelwork lifts up behind him to clear the stage, lassitude incarnate as he gravitates towards the spotlight.
It’s as if Dawson is throwing down the gauntlet of dance. With hardly a dance step from Siegfried – but the promise of so much to come – he dares his audience to imagine where this music might take his dancers, away from the confines of its original 19th century steps.
There’s no princely demeanour here, no hint of pomp or regal grandeur as the scene quickly moves into the light-hearted frivolity of a party held by Benno for his best pal Siegfried.
slough of despond
There’s laughter and dance, cavorting and romancing among the corps-de-ballet, but Siegfried is having none of it. Even when he is forced to dance with the company he’s obviously far too deep in his slough of despond; is revelling too much in its angst.
The Swans Photo by Rimbaud Patron
Andrew Peasgood’s Benno is all light-hearted frivolity, and in this opening act it is the friends which drive the drama – no drink-befuddled tutor, worried mummy or hunting party off to the lake here. Just a load of lads and lasses having a great time as they try to entice their friend out of his mood.
In the ensemble dances and divertissements each individual strives against the rest to entertain him. So that while the ensemble are dancing the same steps, they are not single body moving in a coherent unison, but a collection of individual interpreters. Yet, far from creating a state of incoherence, it adds tension to it all.
Of course the lad isn’t going to be cheered up – at least not by anything as straightforward as friendship – and they are soon off to find better sport, leaving Siegfried to mooch off in his lumpy, adolescent manner down to the river’s edge.
So to the swans. And yes, there are still swans. Many swans. And there is still Odette – danced by the wonderful Sophie Martin.
But these are swans who have discarded their tutus and their stiffness. No razor sharp lines of regimented dancers – or dark magic to make maidens into birds. Instead there are half human, half swan creatures, all lissom articulation and gliding with Dawson’s slipping, sliding half-step movements across the stage.
Sophie Martin (Odette). Photo Andy Ross
Siegfried doesn’t stand a chance. Nor, in her way, does Odette. Their duets just build and build in complexity and athletic fervour. Harrison finds a backbone that you’d never guess Siegfried had, while Martin’s Odette seems to melt into her moves.
And it is in Sophie Martin’s Odette that the whole great passion of this love match lies. She makes it clear that there is danger to their love which, when it is first declared and begins to bloom, does so to the blaring trumpet tones usually associated with Rothbart’s appearance.
But there is no Rothbart here, so the love stakes are upped immensely. Instead of being able to blame the external factors of black magic and sorcery for any infidelity, it has to come from within. And to seal their fate, she gives him a magic stone, glowing red in symbolism of their fidelity to each other.
The second half sets out with a party – as normal, except that it is Benno’s do again, and he has invited a trio of colourful blind dates for Siegfried. So no international divertissements, just a series of attempted seductions by Araminta Wraith, Bethany Kingsley-Garner and Constance Devernay of the uncheerful chappy. Who of course want’s to tell Benno of his new found love.
And the party is crashed, as always, by Odile – black-clad Sophie Martin with a quartet of hoodlum consorts. And once again it is Martin who drives the story. Her laughing flirtations with Siegfried are interpreted wrongly, oh so wrongly by the silly boy.
Sophie Martin (Odile). Photo: Andy Ross
How can he not see that Odile might be dancing the same steps, but Martin gives her a force and drive that Odette never had. Odile drags the dance around by the scruff of its neck and brutalises it into existence where Odette surrenders to the moves, living and breathing them.
It’s a distinction which becomes all the more plain in the final scene as Siegfried returns to the lake to beg forgiveness from his true love – having thrust his love stone into the breast of the mocking Odile, realising his mistake even as he did so.
She has to reject him: fidelity is all in the world of Swan Lake – that much has not changed. Although, while Dawson brings out the most exquisite depth of emotional engagement from his dancers, particularly Martin, he doesn’t quite get the storytelling. Which leaves an unintended ambiguity at its ending.
There is enough emotional engagement to compensate for the loss of so much of the expected choreography. And indeed, to contrast with John Otto’s austere set and Yumiko Takeshima’s starkly unadorned costumes.
Whether it will still resonate a century hence is doubtable, but this is certainly a ballet that speaks to its contemporary audience. It is a ballet of equals, where the swans are not living a second-best trapped existence, but are higher beings, to whose company the flawed, self-pitying Siegfried can only aspire – and fail ingloriously, to climb.
Running time 2 hours 25 minutes
Festival Theatre, 13/29 Nicolson Street EH8 9FT
Wednesday 25 – Saturday 28 May 2016
Evenings 7.30 pm, Matinees Thurs and Sat 2 pm
Tickets from: www.edtheatres.com
The Swans in David Dawson’s Swan Lake. Photo: Andy Ross.