Reviews

Emotion and story prevail over astonishing technique

01 Jul 10 - Theatre Reviews, new Zealand - Brigid Kelly

One of ballet’s most often-presented classics has been given new heart and a touch of fire in this lavish, satisfying production by touring Russian company Imperial Ice Stars.

While balletic conventions and feeling have been retained, this is not a conventional Swan Lake, and not just because it’s performed by skaters on an ice rink, built on the stage over two days. The story departs significantly from the most familiar version. Odette (Olga Sharuntenko) and Odile (Olena Pyantash) are clearly two different women, making Siegfried’s choice that of a boy with his head turned, not of mistaken identity.

We encounter Odile and Rothbart in the first act and while Rothbart remains enigmatic, if seductive, the initially disturbing Odile eventually reveals a sweet humanity beneath her sophisticated feathers. Here also is an Odette who, though beautifully emotional and vulnerable, shows some guts.

It is split into only two fast-paced acts (though all scenes are present) and the Soviet-style happy ending is rendered thrilling and uncertain with swords and a swan on swan battle.

Andrey Pekin as fickle Siegfried is loose limbed and charming. He’s outshone somewhat by his buddy Benno (a robust and charismatic Ruslan Novoseltsev) but steps up well as the romantic lead as the story unfolds. Pekin fell twice (recovering fast and admirably), which made me wonder if he was injured or unwell. He was otherwise very good.

The chemistry between Sharuntenko and Pekin is marvellous; Sharuntenko in particular is wonderfully eloquent and well cast, having a fresh fairness that contrasts with Pyantash’s saturnine leanness and more world-weary air. Yet in the end it’s Odile you feel most for.

The lavish sets are lovely and work well with the softly-coloured Romanof-era costuming, which, curiously, gives the court scenes a very modern feel that contrasts notably with the unearthly beauty of those by the lake.

The Rothbarts, all creepily intimate Vampires 101 in black and red – Odile particularly exotic in jewelled turban and Poiret-style wrap – introduce a note of perversion that’s reinforced later when we meet the all-male, masked, mostly shirtless Black Swans. This is a rather sexy, adult Swan Lake, though ultimately very romantic, and children will enjoy it.

As well as the Imperial Russian setting there are, to my eye, suggestions of Russian folk dance in some of the choreographic choices, particularly in the pretty reworking of the well-known cygnets’ dance. This is also in many ways a man’s show. Despite two compelling principal Swan Princesses and five more in the divertissements, the international princesses in particular are almost outshone by their attendants, though the Italian Princess (Viktoriia Polzynkina) was wonderfully light and engaging.

The Black Swans are seriously manly with their huge feathered shoulders and Rothbart (a louche Vadim Yarkov) is unpleasant, but in a way that makes you want to see more. And ice dancing allows them to show off the kind of strength feats we’re familiar with from the sporting rink. 

The technical challenges of ice dancing in such a confined space are, I am assured, huge. Unlike dancers, skaters in full flight cannot stop in a hurry and unison work is fraught with peril. At times, it is easy to forget that these assured performers are actually on skates. At others the advantages of the medium are showcased – no dancer can travel backward that smoothly and that fast – affording opportunities for some spectacular, challenging lifts and spins.

The small size of the stage limits how high these performers can go and how many times they can turn midair, so you won’t see Olympic level movements here, but it also makes what they do achieve all the more impressive. There is, however, a well-balanced mix of lyrical dancing, eloquent mime and sporting feats, seamlessly blended.

Tony Mercer’s choreography illuminates the poignancy in the well-worn score (which is all Tchaikovsky and all Swan Lake, though some less familiar parts have been chosen). It never seems trite, and the recording is beautiful.

In a performance filled with spectacle it seems petty to feel some disappointment at Odile’s ballroom appearance. The 32 fouettes may be tired (and tiring) but I was expecting something that replicated their repetitive brilliance, especially given the nature of ice dance where long spins can be sustained. But the endless spin never came. Perhaps that is the point: Odile’s charms are slinky, looking ahead perhaps to Russian orientalism while the rest are firmly in the Romantic era. And the lack of ballroom flash is more than made up for by the exquisitely poignant pas de trois between Siegfried, Odette and Odile at the lake later.

The show is extremely technical. Name a special effect and it’s there – fire, flight, snow, torches, working fountain and chandeliers, UV, dry ice, scrim effects – and there are some astonishing human tricks on display. It’s thus a credit to Mercer and cast that the emotion and the story are not overwhelmed by them. Swan Lake on Ice combines spectacular and challenging skating with brilliant and lyrical dance.

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