What makes Swan Lake such an iconic ballet? Common reasons might be the fluidity of the ballerinas’ arms, the extreme difficulty of dancing two different characters in one same ballet, and the precision required by the corps de ballet so it does not look like an ensemble of dancers, but one whole character in the piece. Since its 19th century creation, Swan Lake has been staged, adapted, revisited and twisted by numerous choreographers. Mats Ek, for example, explored the tensions in the relationship between prince Siegfried and an omnipresent Queen mother; Matthew Bourne replaced the female corps the ballet with a male ensemble; Ibrahim Sissoko added hip-hop and breakdance to Tchaikovsky’s scores; Dada Masilo used African and contemporary dance elements to talk about homophobia and arranged marriages.

Jurgita Dronina and Isaac Hernández in English National Ballet's Swan Lake
© Laurent Liotardo

For ballet fans, attending a Swan Lake performance is a unique experience, no matter how many times you may have seen it. English National Ballet's production brings to the London Coliseum intense lead interpretations, and great technical feats; like the vigorous batterie combined with gracious yet fast and silent pas de chat of Crystal Costa and Barry Drummond’s excellent Neapolitan dance, and the sassy and fresh pas de trois, in which Julia Conway superbly fills the stage with her variations. The opening night featured the magnificent Jurgita Dronina, who joined the company as a principal in 2017, and Isaac Hernández in the leading roles. The beginning of Derek Deane’s version of the ballet is faithful to the one staged by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895 by the Mariinsky Theatre, which introduces a young and dreamy Odette in her human form, and depicts her encounter with Rothbart (James Streeter). Throughout the performance, Hernández proves to be an attentive partner and a nuanced interpreter, thus giving personality and visibility to his Siegfried. The variations during the ball in the Great hall of the palace leave no doubts about his virtuoso dancing, but it is just as much of a treat to see how he changes from a naïve young man in the first act to a seductive and reassuring prince in the second act, and to see his desperate and vigorous attempt to rescue Odette (and redeem himself) in the end of the ballet.

Isaac Hernández in English National Ballet's Swan Lake
© Laurent Liotardo

Dronina is a complex, multi-layered and incredibly expressive swan: it is fascinating to see how varied, and how strong the emotions her emotions are as Odette when she first notices Siegfried. She is less melancholic than other principals (such as Alina Cojocaru, also performing this season), but conveys a mix of fear, first date-like nervousness and an astonishing (and scary) amount of love that was waiting to be poured onto that one brave person. It is not just the technical precision and the long lean arabesques that make Dronina’s character memorable – though they can easily be noticed by those more concerned with the technique – but how her interpretation of Odette gives a deeper meaning to the technically challenging movements. Her Odille has an intriguing mixture of audacity and grandeur, which gives the impression that she is not just an instrument of Rothbart’s perversity, but is actually having her share of fun during Siegfried’s birthday party. It is always an extremely pleasant moment when both audience and dancers “forget” about the technique and embark (once again) on the story of the girl transformed into a swan, and the prince in quest of the love that would also set him free. And Dronina and Hernandez provided us with many of these moments in this opening night of English National Ballet's Swan Lake.