National Ballet of China: Swan Lake
Royal Opera House
My first article for The Spectator was a slightly long-winded analysis of the state of Swan Lake on the eve of the ballet’s centenary. It followed a far more pedantic four-part essay in the specialist magazine Dancing Times, of which the late Frank Johnson, my first editor, was an avid reader. Although those writings were a passport to what has so far been a pleasant journalistic stint in the UK, they were also a curse in disguise. Since their publication, a few friends and readers have (wrongly) considered me to be the ultimate authority on the wretched 1895 ballet, and every time a new Swan Lake pops up they ring, write and email to ask whether the new production is good or not. Which is something impossible to state, as there are no fixed parameters to assess a work that has been historically manipulated, interpolated, mutilated, lengthened and rechoreographed 239 times — at least according to my home-grown statistics. To complicate things further, different memorable stagings have influenced diverse generations of ballet-goers, thus generating a number of contrasting opinions on what the ballet ought to be like.
Yet even in the absence of set criteria, there is little doubt that the Swan Lake performed last week by the National Ballet of China was an excellent one. This new dramatically and choreographically vibrant production by Natalia Makarova — one of the 20th century’s greatest interpreters of the work — stands out for being straightforwardly traditional. This is, for a change, a Swan Lake that steers away from the theatrically castrating predicaments of an idealised historical authenticity and is also free from those embarrassing dramaturgical ideas that relocate the ballet in different epochs or populate it with a morass of superfluous political, sexual, psychological and historical metaphors and references. Makarova’s Swan Lake for the National Ballet of China is traditional in the sense that it makes the most of the ballet’s own performing tradition, namely of all the interventions and changes mentioned above, thanks to which, paradoxical as it may sound, the work survives today as a highly revered classic.
Peter Farmer’s sumptuously luscious romantic sets and costumes put Swan Lake back in those fairytale Middle Ages where it was originally set, and the action is restored mostly in line with the standard Russian/Soviet version, even though minor, intelligent changes occur. The first and most evident one is the repositioning of Odette’s solo in the first lakeside scene. Her dance, which through time had been arbitrarily moved towards the end of that same scene, bestows new dramatic consistency on the whole story; it is through this solo that the Swan Queen wins the heart of the Prince, who then joins her in the celebrated ‘White Swan’ duet. The other significant change occurs in the final act. It is a well-known fact that the last act — the dramaturgically weakest one — has been the most interpolated and rechoreographed section of the old work, with often detrimental results — Ezra Pound once claimed that his vision of hell was to have to watch Swan Lake’s last act over and over again. Makarova seems to have extrapolated all the good ideas from some of the most successful existing last acts and added some stunning choreography. The result is a last act that delivers and flows dramatically towards the tragic ending.
But most of the well-deserved success of this production must be ascribed to the dancers. Even the dreariest and silliest fairy tale — let’s face it, it is a silly story — becomes great theatre in the hands, legs and feet of great artists. And the members of the National Ballet of China are all great artists, from the principals — Wang Qimin, Hao Bin, Yu Bo, Huang Zhen and Li Ning, on the opening night — to the last corps de ballet member. There is no doubt that the company benefits from state-of-the-art schooling and training, as demonstrated by the superb neatness that characterised the whole performance. It was a pleasure to see such fluid use of heads, legs and arms, flawless legatos and that brilliantly fast footwork that seems to have completely disappeared in the West these days. Yet it was just the super technical rendition that made me love every moment of this production, for the dancers stood out for their incandescent dramatic interpretation, through which they turned the quirky plot into a perfectly believable drama. According to the press materials, Swan Lake has long become a favourite in China. It certainly shows.