There’s a good reason Swan Lake is a box office blockbuster. Not only is it “famous” in the sense that even ballet neophytes know all about it, Swan Lake is also a seriously meaty ballet with a narrative arc that offers tension-filled dynamics, a luscious score by Tchaikovsky and one of the most famous tragic love stories of all time. The original version was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. A prince falls in love with the swan, but is subsequently tricked into believing that the sorcerer’s daughter is his true love. The two swans, usually performed by one dancer, form a classic binary: light and dark, trust and deception, good and evil.

Polish National Ballet in <i>Swan Lake</i> © E Krasucka
Polish National Ballet in Swan Lake
© E Krasucka

Tchaikovsky’s intended setting was the Middle Ages, but today you can also find many interesting modern reinterpretations of the classic narrative – Matthew Bourne’s version for instance, departs from the traditional ballet by replacing the female corps de ballet with male dancers, while Graeme Murphy's interpretation is loosely based on the Charles/Diana/Camilla love triangle. Some of these interpretations are more successful than others.

The Polish National Ballet’s version of Swan Lake is set in the Imperial Russian court. In this interpretation, the young Nicky, destined to become Tsar Nikolai ll, meets his first love, Alix of Hesse. His father rejects the romantic match, and Nicky finds comfort in the arms of vivacious ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. Still, he dreams of Alix, who is represented as a white swan, before finally becoming reunited with her on his father’s deathbed.

The choreography is a mix of the iconic Petipa/Ivanov (notably the White Swans act and the dynamic Black Swan Pas de Deux) alongside new choreography by Polish National Ballet’s Artistic Director Krzysztof Pastor, which fully exploits his dancers' strengths. The traditional white/black sides of the Swan are divvied up between two dancers: Alix (Chinara Alizade; luminescent and ethereal) and Mathilde (Yuka Ebihara, passionate, with exquisite technique). The role of tzarevitch Nicholas is danced by Vladmir Yaroshenko. He gives an emotional performance, but is outshone by his leading ladies in energy levels and precision.

Polish National Ballet in <i>Swan Lake</i> © E Krasucka
Polish National Ballet in Swan Lake
© E Krasucka

The problem with the Polish National Ballet’s Swan Lake is not the dancers (they’re very good, sometimes fabulous), the staging or the mix of old and new choreography. The problem is that the libretto produces so many complexities that we lose sight of the characters’ motivations.

Here’s an example: after several plot twists, Act 3 skips ahead four years to find Mathilde the prima ballerina of the Imperial Theatre and the crown prince’s mistress. She hosts a themed ball with the primary ambition of seducing Nicholas – which only works when she brings out a black swan costume. In the middle of this, news arrives that Tsar Alexander is gravely ill, and Nicholas, in shock, starts daydreaming about his true love Alix as a white swan. There’s a deathbed scene with a toy swan, followed by a royal wedding. It’s a lumpy mix of dreamscape and historical reference, and the effect is simultaneously campy and boring.

All in all, it feels a shame to give such a technically able company such a muddy libretto to work with. Swan Lake is three hours long, so to maintain the audience’s interest, we have to care deeply about the characters. This new take, despite everyone’s best efforts, just didn’t quite work.

***11