The spine-tingling starts long before the first swan has appeared. It’s the moment when, high above the darkened arena, conductor Gavin Sutherland, lifts his baton and the soulful strains of the oboe sing the ballet’s signature theme. Then the English National Ballet Philharmonic takes on the melodic, full throttle smorgasbord of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score for the next three hours to accompany a veritable army of beautiful dancers.

<i>Swan Lake in the round</i> © ASH
Swan Lake in the round
© ASH

Swan Lake in-the-round was conceived in 1997 by Derek Deane, former director of English National Ballet, and has been seen by over half a million people. It is a magical masterpiece combining the richness of pure classical ballet with zesty character dancing, demanding of its dancers, not mere technical prowess but also Olympian energy to encompass the huge floor space of the Royal Albert Hall. Unlike tradition productions of Swan Lake where the focus is one directional, in this production, the ENB dancers are required to include all their audience and perform to all points in the Hall. Since there are no wings, they must dash up and down the steps between the audience for entrances and exits – no mean feat in their luxurious costumes (making another tingle moments for those audience members sitting on the end of the rows, as I did.)

As the musicians end the prelude, the darkened arena suddenly floods with light as peasants, friends and courtiers, jugglers and acrobats, pour onto the stage to start the festivities. Later, pint sized students from Tring School for the Performing Arts join in the Polonaise with professional solemnity. There is always something to watch, be it the dancing itself, or the interactions between those at the side of the space. And there were good cameo roles from English National Ballet School students as well as former dancers like Jane Haworth who made a gracious but resolute Queen Mother, and Michael Coleman, who as the Tutor, was loveable if at times, blank. Junor Souza made his debut as the wicked Von Rothbart and was effectively scary and menacing as he raced after Odette in his oversized shaggy feather garment.

<i>Swan Lake in the round</i> © ASH
Swan Lake in the round
© ASH

Act II opens with creeping dry ice that undulates like the ripples of the lake and from which Von Rothbart is catapulted from a trap door below the stage, his oversized wings beating furiously with evil intent. Then there is that moment – you can almost hear the intake of breath in the audience – when the swans appear – and appear – and appear. Traditionally the total is either 24, or with big companies, 32. Here in Deane’s version it is 60, uniform in shape and style in shimmering, feathery white tutus. And what a fabulous sight it is to see them all, impeccably together in their straight lines, their leg, arms and head placements in unison with each other. The convoluted but impressive patterning of their movements, like army drill parades, worked perfectly and seemingly effortlessly and must have been impressive to see from the highest seats in the house. Saturday’s performance offered no wobbles or see-sawing legs when poses were struck. Bravo to each and every one of the 60 swans.

Then there is that moment when the Swan Queen appears, danced at this performance by 24 year-old British ballerina, Laurretta Summerscales who was promoted to principal earlier in the year. In the mould of Darcey Bussell – imposing, with long coltish legs, a strong supple back and eloquent arms – she gave an excellent rendition of the dual roles of Odette/Odile, casting her magic through pure technique rather than relying on tricks. Her White Swan was not a gentle pleading creature but a majestic one who put her flock first. Her sincere trust in the Prince’s promise made the opening of Act IV all the more poignant as she explains to her swans that she had been betrayed and so cannot release them from the spell. Summerscales’ whole body evidenced the pathos and pain of the moment. As Odette, her solos showed her excellent training and coaching evidenced in melting adages, good firm balances, neat footwork, and leg and arm movements that encompassed the whole arena, while yet maintaining that element of intimacy.

As the Odile she was a temptress with flashing eyes and sharp, cunning footwork, going for the ‘jugular’ – the Prince’s submission to her – dancing her solos and duets with seductive aplomb. Her 32 fouettés were dashed off in a series of singles and doubles, raising cheers from the audience. A ballerina to watch.

Her Prince, making his debut in the production, was guest artist Constantine Allen, an American from Stuttgart Ballet. Slight and boyish, he showed himself a fine elegant dancer with well-placed and secure technique. He interacted well with the other dancers and expressed his emotions clearly and he partnered Laurretta well – the only challenge being in high lifts, which sometimes took two moves to get her placed securely. But the two worked well together and made a handsome couple in this stunning spectacle.

****1