In the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, many wondered whether there would be a backlash against Russian culture, past as well as present. Thankfully, it has not been so with Tchaikovsky’s three enduring and endearing ballets. On the same evening as this opening night of English National Ballet performing Swan Lake, elsewhere in London other audiences were also enjoying The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty: in fact, over this London winter season there will have been no less than seven separate productions of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. Despite the composer’s self-doubt about whether he could compose for ballet, that he died 130 years ago and that his country is now an international pariah, Tchaikovsky’s ballets remain as popular as ever.

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in Act 2 Swan Lake
© Laurent Liotardo

Derek Deane’s production for ENB is as old as this century and it is an excellent no-nonsense, traditional affair. Aided greatly by the luscious designs of the late Peter Farmer and a copious amount of dry ice, Deane has created a production that respects the tradition of Swan Lake without unnecessary embellishment: there’s no psychological sleight of hand to his straightforward explanation of this fantasy. If I were to select one production of the many hundreds available with which to introduce someone new to Swan Lake then this would be the one.

This opening night represented a changing of the guard as well as an intermission. The former artistic director, Tamara Rojo, has left to take up the same role in San Francisco and Aaron S Watkin, her successor, has not yet departed from Semperoper Ballett in Dresden.  I’m reliably informed that casting decisions for these performances were made by Rojo and it is interesting that she chose to showcase two dancers that have grown in stature under her tutelage for the principal roles on this opening night.   Previous iterations of this ballet have featured the ballet elite with Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Vasiliev opening the revival in 2015: a ballerina of similar stature (Iana Salenko) will star as Odette/Odile later in this run but Rojo entrusted this opening night to two relatively new principals, Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta. It signalled the outgoing director’s faith in the future and her protégés did very well.

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in Act 2 Swan Lake
© Laurent Liotardo

Hawes meets the ideal image of the swan princess, tall and elegant with long limbs to enhance the expressiveness of this captive princess in her enchanted state. Physically the role is tailor-made for her and she used these attributes to an enchanting effect.  She was also not over-indulgent in the 'black act', toning down the general predilection of ballerinas to play the role as a scheming femme fatale, instead merely giving the impression of Odette glamorously dressed for a party. It’s easy to see why Siegfried was duped.

Arrieta is a powerful dancer with strong technique both in the air and on the stage and he is also a selfless and secure partner. At times, I liked his own expressiveness, particularly in Act 2 when he genuinely seemed bemused by this creature in white; and Act 4 where his contrition was clear. But elsewhere his facial expressions were too often vacant and non-descript and despite the fact that these two outstanding dancers gave fine individual performances, I wondered about the effectiveness of their pairing, since I perceived little chemistry in their partnership.

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in Act 3 Swan Lake
© Laurent Liotardo

James Streeter’s Rothbart was also a dual character: a fantasy bird with a massive wingspan in the white acts and a sinister, weaselly 'father' of Odile in Act 3.  Siegfried may have been duped into believing that Odile was Odette but who would want a father-in-law like that!   A word too for Katja Khaniukova (surely still a principal-in-waiting) and Julia Conway who were almost permanently on stage (pas de trois, cygnets and princesses). I do wonder how dim-witted Siegfried must be, not to recognise that two of his proposed brides are actually local girls in disguise!   Tiffany Hedman has been absent from the stage for so long and it was great to see her return as one of the Lead Swans in the final act.   

Rhys Antoni Yeomans and Adriana Lizardi in Swan Lake
© Laurent Liotardo

No matter how much I love the music, the choreography and these performances, I have concerns about some aspects of classical technique.  Given the long run of Nutcracker performances just ended and the obvious lack of time to rehearse properly, the corps de ballet were impressively coordinated in terms of timing and shaping but I felt that their port de bras (especially in the shaping of their hands) was far from perfect (I wonder if it is drilled into them that their arms and hands are, in fact, wings)?  Some steps (pas de chat, for example) were not always correctly executed and the Mazurka was about as authentically Polish as British Pierogi, completely lacking in snap and liveliness.   I hope to see improvement when returning to the Lake.    

***11