Derek Deane’s Swan Lake in-the-round has apparently perennial box-office appeal: this is the English National Ballet production’s seventh season at the Royal Albert Hall since its première there in 1997, besides other performances on tour. The Albert Hall is a wonderful space at any time, and walking into it with the centre transformed into the great oval “lake” stage was rather thrilling; the buzz in the audience, too, suggested a more than usual degree of anticipation. With Tamara Rojo, ENB’s director and one of the British public’s favourite ballerinas, dancing Odette/Odile and guest star Matthew Golding over from Dutch National Ballet to be her Siegfried, a little anticipation was in order: these are good leads. But the novelty value is surely a big part of the draw: it’s quite something to see the dancers much closer up, and stripped of their protective proscenium and pit, never mind the fact that there are so many of them – the usual corps of 24 or 32 swans having been expanded to 60.

Tamara Rojo and Matthew Golding © Image by David Jensen
Tamara Rojo and Matthew Golding
© Image by David Jensen

I’ll be honest: I find it a drag to sit through the first act of Swan Lake more than once a year, however much I love both ballet and Tchaikovsky (what’s that, strangely cheerful peasant lads and lasses? Another waltz for the prince? Couldn’t we just skip it and say we did?), and I didn’t find that multiplying the dancers and adding jugglers helped much. But all the waltzing peasants were impeccably drilled, while the more senior dancers doing the pas de douze (the section requiring some decent technique and speed) were impressively sharp. There’s something appealing about being close enough to see individual dancers very clearly: the corps breaks down visually into a riveting collection of quite different faces. Even their fixed smiles and fake eyelashes, too, were somehow quite endearing seen at close quarters (though those people in the first row whose view was sometimes blocked by the off-duty peasants probably did not think so).

In the legendary white (second and fourth) acts, the sight of 60 swans moving in perfect unison was impressive, no doubt about it – Busby Berkeley’s name is often mentioned here. Ballet dancers are so highly trained that they do anything well: put them into a chorus line and they make a pretty top-notch one, if you like that sort of thing. I was impressed, too, by the extra ingenuity required to do without one fixed front: on a square, audience-facing stage it’s easy to keep track of your front, side and diagonal lines, which are vital reference points in ballet, but Derek Deane kept the “front” constantly shifting. None of the audience could ever feel left out, but all the dancers had a much harder job of it, and not just those in the corps de ballet – Tamara Rojo shifted her spot four times during the famous Black Swan foutté sequence, meaning she faced different compass points and kept spinning on one leg. Kudos.

Rojo danced Odette beautifully, and with all the lip-trembling distress you would expect from one of the ballet world’s most celebrated actor-principals, but I much preferred her coquettish, sparky Odile. So, apparently, did Matthew Golding as Prince Siegfried: they actually had some chemistry in the third act, unlike in the second, their first lakeside encounter. Golding’s jumps in the “black” act were big and confident, his landings secure, his grands jetés en tournant in particular a delight of speed and long legs. His facial acting was maybe less accomplished, but then that is a great disadvantage of the in-the-round format: with the audience so close to the dancers, the overacting normally required to project past the proscenium becomes a little de trop (in which regard, the less said about the villain Rothbart’s big scary cape and big scary arm gestures, the better.)

But as with all novelties, there is a danger of weariness after a time, and Swan Lake is a long ballet to be carried by any gimmick, even one as big as dropping a whole ballet company into a Victorian concert hall. So, if you don’t like your ballets in the imperial Russian style, emotive music (not improved in the RAH by sections of the orchestra being electronically amplified), flimsy plot, strictly classical choreography and all, then this production is not going to convert you: rather, the lack of a proscenium to frame the action will probably render it more hackneyed to your jaded eyes. And if you’re going in looking for tenderness and tragedy, don’t hold your breath. If, on the other hand, you’re after a bit of a spectacle with your vintage white act, you’ll probably love it twice as much with twice the white, and close enough to see the feathers flutter.