Despite its status as one of the most iconic ballets of all time, the first time Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was performed, on 4 March 1877, it was met with almost unanimous criticism, with everything from the original dancers, to the orchestra and the stage sets being badly received. Tchaikovsky’s score, meanwhile, was considered too complicated for ballet. Despite this, the ballet continued to be performed, and today, it is not only considered an essential part of the repertoire of any classical ballet company, but has enjoyed considerable afterlives in various guises. It has been adapted for acrobatic performances, video games, literature, musicals and film – Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a recent (and likely memorable) example of the latter. With such a cultural presence, it is not difficult to assume most members of an audience will have some association with Swan Lake — the challenge for a ballet troupe, then, becomes how to create the unexpected. The Russian State Ballet of Siberia (RBS), a company which hails from Krasnoyarsk, succeeded in surpassing my expectations, as well as those of my fellow audience members in the sold-out Oxford New Theatre on Wednesday 24th February, as they cleverly found creative ways to reimagine this well-known (and well-loved) story.
Swan Lake tells a love story between Prince Siegfried, heir to a mountainous kingdom, and Odette, a young woman transformed into a swan by her vengeful father. Mixing magic, romance, and tragedy, Swan Lake is certainly not known for its simple storyline, and without the usual cues of a stage performance (dialogue, sound effects, lyrical songs), it would be easy to find oneself a little lost in the intricacies of the plot. The RBS, however, navigated this beautifully, assisted by their spectacular costuming — the level of detail was quite extraordinary – and their simple, but well-designed, sets (being the castle hall, and the shores of the lake). They were aided by the orchestra’s strong performance, bringing Tchaikovsky’s distinctive composition to life. Under the leadership of conductor Alexander Yudasin, the Russian State Ballet of Siberia Orchestra did an excellent job in handling Tchaikovsky’s dichotomous score, which characteristically fluctuates between fast, staccato pieces, and dramatic crescendos. Given the theatrics of the music alone, it might have been easy for the ballerinas to have been outshone. Instead, the performance proved a beautiful collaboration: a careful balance was struck between music and movement, creating the perfect complement.
As with their performance of Giselle the previous night, the RBS’s performance of Swan Lake was both technically brilliant and emotionally astute. For the prima ballerina in particular, Swan Lake is a notoriously complex part to perform, having to navigate performing both the gentle Odette and the evil Odile. Credit must be given to Anna Fedosova for her performance, navigating the dichotomous difference between the two brilliantly, playing Odette with sensitive fragility, and Odile with a sensual provocation. Daniil Kostylev, too, was excellent as Prince Siegfried, and he and Fedosova drew the audience into their ill-fated love story.
A clear strength of this company lies in their group pieces. Be it the dances of the various maidens competing for Prince Siegfried’s affections, or the pieces for the swans and cygnets, each member of this troupe demonstrated a level of artisanal skill in their performance, which, collectively, makes for impressive watching. Despite being one of ballet’s longer shows (it ran for 2.5 hours, with intermission), the Russian State Ballet of Siberia held the audience captive from the first moments, only releasing them (much like the story of Odette) at the very end. Swan Lake may have been originally considered a failure, but performed by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, it is an undoubted triumph.
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