It is easy to see why Rudy van Dantzig’s true-to-tradition version of Swan Lake still works. It is a combination of beautiful vulnerability and tremendous technical challenges – for the female dancers especially. In a culture that seems to relentlessly push solipsistic art, this is a vital breath of fresh air. This vulnerable ballet performed by great individual dancers spoke to me convincingly of timeless competing complex values such as: resistance to tradition, search for beauty, true love, deception through sensuality, reconciliation and sacrifice.

Maia Makhateli, Daniel Camargo and ensemble in <i>Swan Lake</i> © Marc Haegeman
Maia Makhateli, Daniel Camargo and ensemble in Swan Lake
© Marc Haegeman

Swan Lake had a bad reception at its premiere at the Bolshoi in 1877, but was successfully adapted by Marius Petipa & Lev Ivanov at the Mariinsky Theatre in 1895 and has since become an all-time classic. Dutch choreographer Van Dantzig’s version premiered in 1988 and is decidedly classical throughout, in dance and visuals.

The story is well known: Prince Siegfried is told to look for a suitable high society bride on his 18th birthday. Unwilling to do so, he must wander off into ‘new territory’, the woods at night. There he discovers his ideal, Odette. Odette, a swan by day, is under a spell of the evil (bird of prey) Rothbart and can only be freed by true love, which Siegfried swears to. But the next day Siegfried mistakes the sensual black swan Odile, Rothbart’s daughter, for Odette at a ball organised in his honour. Giving in to lust, he proposes to her instead. A betrayed Odette flees back to the lake. Siegfried begs for and receives her forgiveness. In a fight with Rothbart, he perishes in the lake, sacrificing himself.

Maia Makhateli as Odette/Odile is incredibly fast on her feet. Her jittery entry and the couple’s accidental brush on stage are so real that you’d expect feathers to fly. Daniel Camargo as Siegfried is a great partner, controlled and dreamy, but untypically he misses some of his physical oomph tonight. Thankfully he redeems himself with some fine dancing in the third act and convincing remorse in the end. His perishing in the waves of the lake gave me goosebumps.

Makhateli’s white swan is mesmerizing and bouncily weightless with long arm lines. She is technically faultless and her solos are sublime. Her black swan Odile is seductive with a mean edge. Her 32 fouettés en tournant in the third act are impressive. Her come-hither attitude matches James Stout’s Rothbart, who is more false than scary.

Many dancers put in commendable performances in this three-hour spectacle, especially during the ‘acrobatic’ third act. I will mention a few: the four-little swans (Riho Sakamoto, Naira Agvanean, Salomé Leverashvilli and Saya Okuba) moved in near perfection. And of Siegfried’s scorned marriage candidates Antonina Tchirpanlieva and Nadine Drouin provided the most comic relief. Multi-talented Tour Van Schayk designed the beautiful, superclassical, detailed set and also choreographed several of the folk dances in the third act. The Hungarian Dance, with amazing costumes, is the best and most uplifting of these, enthusiastically lead by Dario Elia and Maria Chugai.

Vera Tsyganova and Maria Chugai’s great swans are truly majestic. Originally from the Vaganova Academy, with some ten years at Dutch National Ballet, they have these roles down.

The opening of the 4th act provides the visual highlight of the evening. It is a breath-taking tableau of the swans with their silhouettes against the backdrop of Van Schayk’s lake design. The collective mourning at Siegfried’s betrayal and its consequences as well as their collective disapproval are palpable. Siegfried has some apologising to do. The corps de ballet’s swans are absolutely lovely and the collective movements proceed with a synchronous lightness of tremendous skill throughout the entire performance.

Excellent violinists and beautiful clarinet solos maintain the dreamlike atmosphere of Tchaikovsky’s score. The Ballet Orchestra led by Boris Gruzin feels a bit slow for the dancers in the first act but the other acts are swept through with gusto towards an inspired finale, earning them a thunderous applause.

Swan Lake presents contrasting archetypes: the white good hearted swan representing truth, beauty and ideals and the black swan a representation of political manipulation and the superficially sensual. Like any good fairytale it takes its protagonists (black/white swan and weak/wise Siegfried) seriously as characters capable of choice. But above all this Swan Lake is a continued homage to classical female beauty and the awe-inspiring dancing that women are capable of.