Review: ACROBATIC SWAN LAKE, Sadler's Wells

This revival of the Chinese classic circus is a superb example of an underserved art form.

By: Jun. 24, 2024
Review: ACROBATIC SWAN LAKE, Sadler's Wells
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Review: ACROBATIC SWAN LAKE, Sadler's Wells Zhang Quan’s Acrobatic Swan Lake is so much more than its title suggests. The show originated in China in 2004 and, in the intervening decades, has travelled the world and was updated in 2019 under director Yan Hongxia. As choreographer and artistic director, Quan has created a work which seamlessly blends the elegance and poetry of ballet with the ability of circus to defy physics and the limits of the human body.

Using Tchaikovsky’s famous score as an aural backdrop, Quan has kept the bare bones of the original story intact albeit with Chinese influences. The Princess is attacked by Black Hawk King and cursed into being a white swan. Thousands of miles away, a Prince (Jie) senses the attack and travels to the Far Eastern city of Chang’an, the capital of the Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties. A final boss fight sees the Prince win out, the Princess returned to her original form and the pair living happily ever after. 

Featuring the Xi’an Acrobatic Troupe, the quality of this production from Joyway London is on a level very rarely seen in London outside Cirque du Soleil’s annual winter visits to the Royal Albert Hall. In one sequence, Sun Yin, a tall ballerina, stands on the narrow shoulders of male dancer (Zhou Jie). She shifts her weight to her toes, going en pointe before releasing one foot and gracefully pointing the leg directly parallel to the ground while splaying her arms for balance. In one swift move, she moves her hind leg above her head for a show of vertical splits, all the while still focussing all her weight through the end of one solitary ballet shoe on one shoulder. 

Don’t go in expecting the kind of epic circus apparatus seen in Cirque shows. Quan sensibly eschews the likes of teeterboards, walls of death and trampolines presumably in order to not pull us too far away from the story and keep the pace up. There’s a breadth of skills to go along the depth of physical talent. The duo acrobalance is casually jaw-dropping, the hand-balancing aboard the Prince’s ship no less so. Contortionists twist themselves into shapes resembling eagles and snakes in the Black Hawk’s lair when not floating through the air on aerial hoops. 

Costuming is superb throughout. A phalanx of beautifully dressed dancers in crimson ra ra dresses juggle straw hats. The Black Hawk has a voluminous cape that Batman would sell Alfred for and the detailing in the Prince and Princess’ outfits are very impressive. Choreography is kept simple and powerful: Quan plays with the art form with gentle humour introducing at one point a dozen glamorous swans floating around on what appear to be Segways under silver dresses.The music isn’t live but, frankly, adding an orchestra here would have been overkill when this show is far more about the sights than the sounds.

The more cynical among you may point to Acrobatic Swan Lake as an attempt at soft power or pure artwashing to launder awy the Chinese government’s less than decent record on human rights. And you may be right - but it shouldn’t take away from the example this show sets for its art form. Modern circus - like golf, football and TV - is something created in the UK that has been taken to another level elsewhere and is dismissed in its home nation more as Saturday night BGT fodder or a pejorative word than something which deserves to be celebrated. That the Critics' Circle seems to contain more stand-up comedy specialists than those with expertise in circus, variety, clown, drag, burlesque, magic or cabaret says plenty about exactly where these art forms lie in the estimation of this country's arts establishment.

Acrobatic Swan Lake continues at Sadler’s Wells until 29 June.

Photo credit: Joyway London


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