April 19, 2016
by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2016 by Ilona Landgraf
Each new piece reveals more of a choreographer’s artistic self. If it is just “Swan Lake”, the ballet of ballets, tackling an own version equals an acid test. David Dawson just dared it. His interpretation of the tragic love story between Siegfried and Odette/Odile premiered with Scottish Ballet on April 19th. His vision had been to shift the focus to the choreography, to follow the story inherent in Tchaikovsky’s music and, above all, to tell it credibly. The aim was to distill he universal emotional essence of “Swan Lake” into a pure, light and classical ballet. What was the outcome?
The unhappy romance plays in an unspecified gray space, which set designer John Otto decorated either with a wave-line or a curved band of light at the backdrop. There is neither a castle, nor a definite lakeside and also no Queen Mother dominating Siegfried. Odette isn’t under a spell but is an independent, strong Swan Queen. Dawson compared her with a goddess regenerating her powers by the lake’s water. Hence there is no trace of Rothbart. Also no tutus. Instead Yumiko Takeshima designed white, partly semitransparent leotards patterned with hints of large feathers for Odette and her swan companions. Odile has a ravishingly elegant, sexy black dress; the human characters are in casual clothes: pants, shirts, and jackets for the men, monochrome dresses in various colors for the women.
The plot is quickly told: Siegfried is a lonely outsider, trapped by self-imposed restraints and obstructive perceptions. Unable and also unwilling to socialize with peers he keeps himself on the sideline at the birthday party of his best friend Benno. Although the party guests do their best to cheer him up and integrate him, Siegfried rejects their efforts. Only when accidentally meeting Odette does he come out of his inner cocoon. She is a strong women, rooted in her herself, a creature half human, half swan. Her genuineness, bright charisma and vulnerability touch Siegfried. Both start to trust and to open up towards each other. The red gemstone, Odette presents Siegfried, symbolizes their budding affection. For the moment Siegfried is overjoyed.
Yet at the next party, this time arranged by Benno to make his friend meet potential brides to be, Siegfried is moody again. Odette has won his heart, the three ladies making approaches to him don’t attract him. But the fourth, Odile, does. The moment she enters she has caught his attention. Her veins pulse with vitality; her strong femininity seduces; she oozes sexuality. While Odette sets Siegfried in a state of chaste love too ideal to become real, Odile awakens his virility. Swept away by testosterone he bestows on her the red gem. Odile departs triumphantly. Realizing his failure Siegfried collapses. When he finally has the guts to confess his mistake to Odette she abandons him too. Siegfried ends where he began. Trapped in his loneliness, yearning for release, for love.
In a rehearsal video Dawson stated Siegfried would fall for both characters, Odette and Odile, because they represent the principle of Yin and Yang. Only both parts together would constitute a balanced personality. I found Siegfried a quite weak, immature young man. He seeks refuge in a dream world, feels misunderstood and is easily offended. He is standing so much in his own way that one wonders if he would ever grow strong enough to stand on his own feet rather than being dependent on the love of a strong woman.
Though the plot is minimalistic, Dawson embedded it in an abundance of dance. He is stupendously inventive. He pushes the envelope of classical language and by this achieves a matchless aesthetic and elegance. The pas de deux he created for Siegfried and Odette/Odile are gorgeous. Each solo of the potential lovers distinctively reveals the ladies’ character traits. The partying youth enjoys sportive group dances; the swans’ moves have an angular touch reminding one of the physicality of true animals. No attempts to make them look weightless, no flapping arms.
Dawson’s concept was promising and courageous but it didn’t fully come off at the premiere. Too many disturbing elements were in the way. The company still needs time to master the challenges of the complex, technically demanding choreography. Stretched nerves did their bit too. The male corps de ballet rushed through their sequences with swooshing legs and swirling arms without finding peace within the movements. Moreover jumping isn’t their strength. The women depicting the swans were technically more assured but they still didn’t grasp and extend Odette’s aura as intended by Dawson. Overall rarely did any energy radiate towards the audience.
Sophie Martin gave a strong performance both as Odette and – even more – as Odile. Well done! Yet Christopher Harrison as Siegfried put on his role rather than internalizing it. Where believable, genuine emotions were asked, he faked or turned melodramatic. Andrew Peasgood was a likable Benno; Constance Devernay, Araminta Wraith and Bethany Kingsley-Garner were convincing as the three possible inamorata. Some details of “Swan Lake” refer to Dawson’s former pieces. The party for Siegfried in act two reminded me of Morold’s court in “Tristan + Isolde”: gray surroundings with dots of bright colors. Odile’s entrance at the party – she was escorted by four men – was similar to Bathilde’s entrance in “Giselle”. In my opinion it is always better to not repeat what worked elsewhere. Much less given one is blessed with a vast talent as Dawson is.
Inevitably a new “Swan Lake” has to break with what the popular tunes are associated with. I’m not musically versed enough to detect exactly how Tchaikovsky’s score was altered. The order of a few numbers seemed rearranged, a few others sounded unfamiliar (maybe numbers dropped in other ballets?), yet the mix of well-known and unfamiliar was refreshing. Dawson’s choices were well considered. Sadly his purpose was undermined in the first act by conductor Richard Honner, who imposed a slow, monotonous pace on the Scottish Ballet Orchestra. No wonder the party on stage didn’t really gain momentum.
Absolutely dispensable were the audience’s lack of concentration and some odd manners. I never before witnessed an audience murmuring blatantly during the musical interludes, taking drinks into the auditorium, which, half empty, were left under the seats at the end and rustling with papers for minutes. The applause was short, but intense and intensified by yelling.
|Links:||Scottish Ballet’s Homepage|
|Photos:||1.||Sophie Martin (Odette) and Christopher Harrison (Siegfried), “Swan Lake” by David Dawson, Scottish Ballet 2016|
|2.||Ensemble, “Swan Lake” by David Dawson, Scottish Ballet 2016|
|3.||Sophie Martin (Odile), Christopher Harrison (Siegfried) and ensemble, “Swan Lake” by David Dawson, Scottish Ballet 2016|
|4.||Ensemble, “Swan Lake” by David Dawson, Scottish Ballet 2016
| all photos by Andy Ross © Scottish Ballet 2016