Every ballet company wants a box-office earner. But why Scottish Ballet’s leader Christopher Hampson kept on at David Dawson until he agreed to do a new Swan Lake is difficult to understand given the meh results. Dawson is a polite, undemonstrative choreographer, and his lack of enthusiasm has rather predictably produced an asthenic result.
Obviously, abandon thoughts of white swans, or royalty, or Matthew Bourne’s brilliant, vaudevillian 1995 rewrite. This is, literally, a grey production in every way — or rather greyed-out, as if it were the ghost of something that was functional but is now impotent. Dawson doesn’t display the theatrical or choreographic skills here that would have made that disabling of older functions (enchantment, technique, musicality) a deliberate, interesting choice.
The grey setting shows a lattice of crashed girders, with a minimalist dish of white light representing the lake, designed by John Otto. The party scenes look like a cheerless staff do in the backrooms of a posh hotel, men in grey jackets and black trousers, women in frumpy midi-dresses, rhubarbing generically.
The story is mumbled rather than explored: moody no-mates Siegfried mooching next to his Tiggerish friend Benno, who gets the lion’s share of the dancing at first, but nothing emerges of the crucial sexual subtext. Is Siegfried in love with Benno — or jealous of him or something? Are the party guests deferential management subordinates (i.e., old-school courtiers) or the typically boring friends of boring men?
Dawson’s unfocused choreography ignores Tchaikovsky’s distinctive, varied tempi and pulses, and only tentatively allowed moments of focused formations in the ensemble. Occasionally, nuggets of ideas break through — there’s a ghost of a jive in the Act 1 waltz, and in Act 3 Siegfried finally wakes up a bit with a decent solo. There seems to be a fear of focus.
The Swan Queen carries the show, with Scottish Ballet’s best ballerina Sophie Martin gorgeous and confident in a very cute white devoré playsuit, which suits her lean body but not the bigger bottoms made much too visible within her swan flock. Her choreography draws no lines of vulnerability between Odette and Odile, and it’s unclear why she should be seriously distressed by Siegfried’s limp actions. In expert hands, a minimalist setting, colourless choreography, indecisive drama, could be turned to poignancy, questions, pale-fire beauty. But here the whole thing seems to have a gigantic prophylactic over it.
Meanwhile, the dancing is the only lead in the pencil of the Royal Opera’s Tannhäuser, in Tim Albery’s staging. That’s deliberate, since the opening Venusberg ballet scene must define the depravity to which Wagner’s anti-hero has become addicted. From then on it’s all hairshirt remorse in terrible clothes (opera choruses must basically live in what they find in bin-bags these days).
Its choreographer Jasmin Vardimon was well chosen by Albery — she’s originally from Israel where they are not afraid of big, robust crowd movement (see her compatriot Hofesh Shechter). The tumbling shoals of girls and boys, doing a strip as they swirl acrobatically hither and thither, manage to indicate wild surges of primeval sexuality, the impact enhanced by setting the Venusberg inside the Royal Opera House itself, behind those famous red curtains.
The previous weekend, in Sadler’s Wells’ cramped little Lilian Baylis studio, Vardimon’s own creation, (in between), showed this mermaid imagery in a more quirky, curious way, with dancers upending themselves, waggling their legs in the air. Her question seems to be about the ecstatic addictiveness of slavish physical discipline. This strikes me, in retrospect, as a Wagnerian question.
But the highlight of the past few days was Life., an outstanding new double bill from the Ballet Boyz’ increasingly charismatic all-male company — one piece of Nordic sombreness, the other of Latin amusement, both about male insecurities.
Pontus Lidberg’s divertingly couched but bleak Rabbit gets a Kafkaesque tinge from the Edwardian shirts, braces and breeches, as one man nervously joins a band of rabbit-headed men, perhaps dreaming of recapturing his childhood innocence. It is not at all cosy — the rabbit heads are so realistic that you imagine the rank, bloody smell. The rabbit men jerk and slide in precise, menacing synchronised formations. The satirical brass shrieking and bell-tolling of Gorecki’s Kleines Requiem für eine Polka, well played live under Christopher Austin, rubs salt into the psychic wounds.
I have an interest in Javier de Frutos’s piece Fiction, in which the choreographer kills himself off, as I wrote the fake obituary that forms part of the text. For a notorious gay blasphemer like de Frutos I felt that an Exorcist-style death was mandatory, and extra fruit and ham are piled on by the voicing of Jim Carter, Imelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi.
But it’s actually only the warm-up for a rather good score by Ben Foskett, and the excuse for some exciting physical complexity on and around a ballet barre demanded of the ten supposedly sorrowing dancers. While de Frutos may be renowned as a sensationalist, he will die (at whatever age) noted as a choreographer of ingenious, true skill, who wouldn’t touch grey with a bargepole.
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