Review: SWAN LAKE IN-THE-ROUND, Royal Albert Hall

Derek Deane's unique Swan Lake is back at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in eight years.

By: Jun. 14, 2024
Review: SWAN LAKE IN-THE-ROUND, Royal Albert Hall
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Review: SWAN LAKE IN-THE-ROUND, Royal Albert Hall Derek Deane’s Swan Lake has quite the reputation. First premiered in 1997 it became known for its corps de ballet of 60 swans (with freelancers hired to beef up ENB’s ranks) and then in 2010, a BBC documentary tracked its rehearsals and opening night, not always depicting everyone in the most flattering light, but the spectacle of all those white tutus made it an audience favourite. Now it’s back to conclude the first season under new Artistic Director Aaron S. Watkin. 

Performed in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall, Deane’s production is a unique experience, this is arena ballet for the big stage, story is secondary to wow factor and there won’t be many complaints about that. From the moment dancers come on, ballerinas are interspersed with jugglers and acrobats. Everything must be bigger and better, the pas de trois becomes a pas de douze with four trios gallantly mirroring each other to great effect, and later the quartet or cygnets is increased to eight for some double jeopardy. Add to that Tchiakovsky’s iconic score conducted enthusiastically by Gavin Sutherland and you can understand there is almost too much to take in. 

Amongst all that, the leading couple don’t define the performance as much as they would typically but Gareth Haw makes a highly assured debut as Prince Siegfried. He is an expressive actor and dancer who appears rather overwhelmed by his adoration for his Odette (Sanguen Lee), he is consumed by love for her. Lee herself is an eye-catching, athletic dancer, combined with a rippling fluidity of movement. She need only extend her leg skywards and it’s breathtaking.

In the beautifully blue lit (Howard Harrison) first white act their seasoned partnership shows but Lee’s Odette is too distant, the chemistry not quite there yet. Importantly however, it’s not the biggest deal because our attention is diverted by the magical sight of sixty white swans filling the stage. Perfectly and precisely spaced they are the true stars. As close as I was, their melancholy faces are deliberate but also highlight the strain of not putting a hair out of place. Individually and as a whole they are mesmerising. But here’s the thing. Despite the swans sometimes kneeling or sitting, there are often layers of tutu between the audience and the main action, and so the story and the mime is lost. 

There is drama at that lake too, Peter Farmer’s simple designs work well, that is once you can see them amongst the buckets of dry ice, and James Streeter’s villainous Rothbart who tears up that expansive stage with great power and menace. 

Act III is where things really pop, the national dances working well in the bigger setting, the eight princesses selected as suitors for Siegfried are graceful and serene. Emily Suzuki and Precious Adams have particularly striking stage presence here too. Reprising a role they danced previously, Rhys Antoni Yeomans and Haruhi Otani pack a punch in the demanding Neapolitan, fast feet and brimming with energy. 

Finally, Lee is back, bursting through the Albert Hall aisles as Rothbart’s decoy, Odile. She’s much more comfortable here, confident and manipulative, and with the stage now clear we can see how entirely Haw’s Siegfried is taken in by her, he falls to the ground in adoration before pulling off all his big solos moments skillfully, with great elevation and neat landings in his jumps. Lee positively crackles in the final coda, head whipping through the fouettes with ease, her seduction is complete.

Act IV allows a brief return to the lake for a final look at those shimmering swans. This is where a broad brush approach to the storytelling pays off, because there isn’t much that needs to be explained here. We can watch the swans bourrée into different patterns (under the gentle rumble of pointe shoes) and stoically flap their wings before Odette and Siegfried are reunited in a last dramatic stand-off with Rothbart in a captivating finale. 

The simple but euphoric final image of Odette suspended in the air by Siegfried, framed by her flock of swans is a fitting conclusion. Deane’s production may not be perfect for the unique setting but his Swan Lake feels like an event, markedly different to the more traditional offerings; it's a true achievement to pull off ballet on this scale. 

Swan Lake runs at the Royal Albert Hall until June 23.

Image credit: Laurent Liotardo


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