What is essential for a great Swan Lake performance? A superb ballerina to dance the dual role of Odette/Odile, a beautiful corps de ballet to embody the swans, a magnificent orchestra to play the timeless Tchaikovsky classic masterpiece? This performance of Swan Lake at National Ballet of Japan had it all, yet it failed to make a truly enchanting and touching atmosphere. I once recognized the importance of dramaturgy in classical ballet this time.

The National Ballet of Japan is well known for its high quality corps de ballet, whose uniformity, serene and tranquil movement and their classical beauty makes them one of the best corps in the ballet world. This time, my expectations for this corps were not betrayed: beautifully proportioned, unified movements creating a magical lakeside atmosphere. Especially the lakeside scene in Act One Scene Two was ethereal and left the audience utterly breathless.

Odette/Odile was danced by Ayako Ono. Ono is a petite ballerina, her arms are not long so not a typical Odette type, but she has strong technique and a flexible back, giving poetic and lyrical expression with her deep gaze, eloquent feet and her delicate port de bras telling her tragedy. She is not a woman, she is rather a youthful swan princess – so that might be one reason that she was not convincing as the Swan queen. This version lacks the mime scene where Odette tells her doomed story to the Prince. As Odile, she was enchanting and seductive, manipulating everyone on stage with ease, but still had that princess quality although looking very evil. Her fouettes were stable, throwing many double turns and perfectly in rhyme with the music. No wonder the poor prince would be deceived by her as she had that same charm of Odette. Even with her dazzling power, it was not easy to grab the audience’s hearts, Swan Lake is not such a simple ballet to conquer, the ballerina has to be truly charismatic and being perfect is not enough.

The greatest flaw lies in the storytelling of this ballet, which was revised by Asami Maki, former artistic director of the company. This Swan Lake has a prologue that seems to be inspired by the Bourmeister version, which shows Odette as a human princess being transformed into a swan by Rothbart with his evil spell. If the story begins like that and the ending is a happy one with the lovers triumphing over evil, they ought to have shown Odette transformed into human form again. There are no indications of her returning to her princess form, and it is hard to understand why the Prince and Odette could win over Rothbart – it seems the evil has been destroyed on its own, which reduces the dramatic effect of the ballet. Apart from the prologue, the whole structure of the ballet looks like a carbon copy of the Sergeyev version of Swan Lake, which used to be performed at this theatre before the Maki version was inaugurated.

It is quite underwhelming to see that this Swan Lake is deprived of drama as a result of poor dramaturgy and thin staging, because all of the dancers were very attractive and well trained. Akimitsu Yahata especially stood out as the jester, with his incredibly high leaps and multiple a la seconde turns that seemed to last forever, along with his bright attractive character. Yudai Fukuoka was a stable partner with gentle partnering skills and embodying the elegant but hesitant Prince, while growing from an adolescent boy to a man, fighting fiercely to gain his beloved Odette back. The National Ballet of Japan was good in character dancing as well – the Spanish dancing as disciples of von Rothmart were steamy and sensual, adding much flavor. Tokyo Symphony Orchestra were superb under the baton of Alexei Bakran, maximising the quality of the performance but even Tchaikovsky’s evergreen and elaborate orchestration could not save this beautiful but not so memorable production.