Swan Lake is one of the most popular and sought-after classical ballets there is, and therefore a wide range of different versions is being presented by numerous companies all over the world. Some of them stick to the traditional fairy tale, while others put the story in a whole new perspective. The Czech National Ballet (Národní divadlo Balet), a Prague-based company of 82 dancers led by Petr Zuska, was searching for a new Swan Lake that is both "a bit new and a bit original". This resulted in Kenneth Greve's production that premièred on the stage of the National Theatre in 2009. This production is the more modern of their two Swan Lakes (the other version is by Pavel Ďumbala), both being frequently performed by the company throughout the season. Greve's production concentrates more on the story and its depth,  providing a fresh interpretation while retaining an overall classical appearance and feel.

Czech National Ballet: Nikola Márová © Diana Zehetner
Czech National Ballet: Nikola Márová
© Diana Zehetner

His Swan Lake is introduced with a dreamy scene of prince Siegfried’s youth. Behind a see-through curtain we see the boy mourning by his father’s grave. He finds a feather on his pillow and hurries to show it to his friend Benno, upon which his mother tells them a bedtime story of Swan Lake, brought to life by the dancers on the side of the stage. In this story the princess is caught under the spell of an evil sorcerer, but rescued by the prince who shoots him. A taste of what will happen later, but with a slightly different outcome.

What happens next is already well known. We fast-forward in time and end up at court, where the queen informs the prince that she wants him to marry, but the prince does not agree and goes into the forest to hunt. In this version, Odette appears as a human princess, something that seems more convincing than the prince falling in love with a swan, and von Rothbart shows off his powers by magically transforming her. The story then takes some interesting turns. When Benno sees the couple he feels abandoned, and von Rothbart takes advantage of this by turning him into a black swan. The way this is portrayed is quite confusing and disillusioning, with him disappearing in some kind of steam cabin. Nevertheless it is interesting to see that this production pays attention to the symbolism of the story and the importance of truthfulness, and even more so because it highlights this not only in love but especially in friendship.

Something that characterizes this Swan Lake is the minimal staging. The first act shows a simple backdrop and moveable panels are used to change the environment. Indeed, towards the end of the ballet there is almost no staging at all, just the darkness of the woods.  Although this lends a modern atmosphere to the production, it also somewhat detracts from the romantic and magical feeling that is so pertinent in this ballet. This results in even greater focus on the choreography and dancing, which for the most part was simple yet effective.

This production relies on the dancers to bring the story alive. Rebecca King is not a typical vulnerable Odette, as she expresses her distrust towards the prince with strong and reluctant arm movements. Odile seemed to suit her better, as she is a powerful and playfully seductive black swan. However, towards the end her Odette became increasingly vulnerable, her dancing grew softer, and she showed a more sensitive side of herself. The moment she stares into the audience with alarm after hearing of Siegfried’s betrayal, and gestures so as to remind us of the prince’s faithfulness, is truly touching.

Czech National Ballet: Michal Štípa, Nikola Márová © Diana Zehetner
Czech National Ballet: Michal Štípa, Nikola Márová
© Diana Zehetner

Michal Štípa is a mature prince Siegfried, and a typical princely dancer with his long limbs and perpetual elegance. His jumps were not the strongest, but he has a natural refinement and his grand jetés are a pleasure to watch. Moreover he is a reliable partner, but unfortunately the real spark was missing in the pas des deux. Other dancers that stood out were Karel Audy, who was an exciting and mysterious von Rothbart, and Zuzana Šimáková in the Russian dance. She has perfect body proportions and a strong stage presence, and even while the men were showing off their tricks my eyes stayed glued to her.

The corps de ballet proved to be the real stars of the night. Greve's Swan Lake is tailor-made for them, and it shows. The choreography for the corps at the court was a little plain but nevertheless neatly danced. The magic was there as soon as the white swans appeared on stage. They showed nearly perfect unison and control, looking highly disciplined while smoothly creating tight lines and patterns. Their soft, expressive arms and hands are clearly their strongest point, something that was highlighted in the choreography. This production is adjusted to the abilities of the dancers, and while this means that it might not be technically as impressive as some of world’s most famous productions, it creates a magical atmosphere and proves to be very successful. Kenneth Greve undoubtedly succeeded im making the Czech corps de ballet look its best.

The overall impression of the Czech National Ballet's Swan Lake is good.  The choreography was simple but well executed. The company might not be ready to conquer the world stage just yet, but it is interesting to watch its progress and its expanding repertoire. While this is perhaps not the most memorable Swan Lake, they used what they have as effectively as possible, resulting in a very respectable and steady performance.