Swan Lake, the new Scottish Ballet production for 2016, arrived at The Festival Theatre in Edinburgh tonight as it nears the end of its initial UK tour (still to go to Liverpool), and as you would expect with any re-imagining of a classic, opinions can be divided.
Swan Lake is not just any ballet, but an iconic ballet with the traditional version so firmly fixed in the minds of generations of audiences that to not only re-stage and re-imagine, but give completely new choreography and visuals means that everyone involved in this production is taking a brave step that is always going to make some people dislike change.
For myself, I like change and I like Scottish Ballet both when they are performing very traditional ballets (such as their Christmas classics), but also when they are taking that brave step towards commissioning and performing new works. This new Swan Lake with choreography by David Dawson is a brave new work as he has gone back to earlier source material for a goddess in the lake, got rid of the classic ballet tutu costumes so closely associated with this work while at the same time retaining the core of what many audiences expect from this story. For some, this may sound a bit like re-writing sacred text, but I like this new interpretation a lot as it gives us a contemporary Swan Lake to add to the classical version. Both exist happily in my world.
Swan Lake, no matter which of the many versions out there you are watching being performed, has one thing that will always stay true and that is the wonderful and now iconic music of Tchaikovsky, and against that beautiful music from the Scottish Ballet Orchestra with Richard Honner conducting, Sophie Martin as Odette/Odile and Christopher Harrison as Siegfried gave outstanding performances. Individually they are always wonderful dancers to watch, but when they are together on stage something a little extra and special happens. Their respective roles in this Swan Lake are going to join the classic interpretations of these two parts.
The set design for Swan Lake is by John Otto and a minimalist grey monotone set I would normally not like as I have to admit a liking for “big sets”, but here it works very well and somehow focuses you on only the dancers and their movements. The bright colours of the dresses at the ball also seem that bit brighter set against this minimalist colour palette. Subtle but effective lighting design by Bert Dalhuysen works well too with this set. Given from the start that this was going to be a new look at Swan Lake, I can understand why such new stage visuals were required though.
Costume design is by acclaimed designer Yumiko Takeshima, and choreographer David Dawson wanted to get away from the traditional look of Swan Lake from the very beginning, so costume designs too were always going to be something new and different. Some work for me, some don’t, but that is purely personal. The dresses at the ball I like a lot, they flow wonderfully with the dancers as they move, and Odile’s “Black Swan” dress is stunning, but for myself I would have liked more visually striking swan costumes as from my view in the theatre they became rather indistinct and the male costumes were at times a bit too “street casual” for me but I accept that visually you have to connect to a modern audience and how they see fashion in a visually new work like this. A purely personal comment here though as the costumes allowed the important thing to be emphasised – the dancers’ movements. An odd observation for me actually as I am a big fan of seeing dancers perform out of their traditional costumes and in more contemporary attire.
This is a new Swan Lake, and there is always going to be a balancing act here of what elements to retain and what do an audience expect to see. For me, this one gives me a contemporary Swan Lake to add to the very traditional one, and I like Scottish Ballet for many reasons, but one of them is that element of always wanting to perform completely new works and re-imagine the classics.
Review by Tom King