Review – Swan Lake, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Derngate, Northampton, 13th September 2013

Swan LakeWe returned to the Royal and Derngate for the second offering this week by the Peter Schaufuss Ballet Company, Swan Lake. Given that Romeo and Juliet delivered much more than it promised, expectations were a little higher. Sadly, that was but the first of many misjudgements that evening.

Simona MarsibilioThe pre-show synopsis proved interesting reading. The ballet is framed by the appearance of “The Dream Master” who basically has a nasty dream about the Prince and the Queen, her requiring him to choose a bride, he only liking “The Swan Girl” (no Odette/Odile here) and not fancying any of the exotic princesses who dance for him at the ball. Rothbart tricks him by presenting his daughter the Black Swan (different dancer from the Swan Girl), whom he chooses as his bride, then the truth is revealed, he goes frantic, can’t make it up with the Swan Girl then finally he turns back into the Dream Master and “the nightmare is over”. Now, I am all for experimentation in theatre and dance, and my usual watchword is that I would prefer to see a brave experimental failure rather than a lazy, easy success. Following the tedium of this dance experience, I may have to revise that watchword.

The chief problem is the choreography. For the most part it’s unimaginative and very repetitious. How you long for a touch of the 1895 Ivanov; but Mr Schaufuss’ choreography (I presume it is his, it’s not actually credited anywhere), especially for the swans, seems limited to some stomping around and throwing hands in the air every so often. Either that or the dancers were expressing their own personal dismay at being in this show. The usual highlight of the Dance of the Cygnets was simply unnoticeable as there was hardly any variation from what went before or followed afterwards. The Prince and the Swan Girl’s dances involved a lot of writhing around on the floor so that most people couldn’t see what was going on. Some manic rabbits appeared every so often – I think they were meant to represent jesters – who injected a little element of humour, but even they tended to outstay their welcome.

Ryoko YagyuTo be fair, the choreography improved a little after the interval, with the four princesses’ dances having some flair and wit to them, and the Prince’s final solo being a highly watchable tour de force. There is also a moment where I couldn’t tell whether to laugh or be shocked, when it appears the Black Swan is about to fellate the prince. The brief appearance of Rothbart created a sudden interesting dynamic – the stage brightened up when he came on. Sadly, that was short-lived and it returned to its former dullness when he left.

The recorded music – particularly before the interval – is underwhelming and really quiet. Mrs Chrisparkle thought it sounded like we were listening to music in an adjacent theatre. Bizarrely, it’s also not all from Swan Lake; there are definitely other pieces of music in there that I didn’t recognise. The stage is bare (not that I mind that) but the stitched patches in the backdrop material made it look incredibly cheap and worn. The costumes are all black, white or grey, or a combination of the same, with little style or sense of elegance.

Yoko TakahashiIt’s a crying shame that such talented dancers were being given such dull things to do. Thaddaeus Low is, I am sure, an exciting young dancer and his final solo was indeed superb. Luke Schaufuss (Romeo earlier in the week) is a member of the corps de ballet in this production, and shines with his excellent rapid changements. Ryoko Yagyu and Yoko Takahashi both perform with superb skill and control. The company is packed with extraordinary dancers. But it doesn’t matter how good they are; the artistic vision behind this production is so absent that it commits the cardinal sin of being boring from a very early stage; and basically you can’t wait for it to end. We were overheard talking about the show during the interval by a couple who described themselves as “ballet virgins” and wondered if ballet in the provinces was always this boring. They hated the set, the costumes, the music, the entire experience. We begged them to give the genre another chance in the future, but had to agree, this production is woeful.

Review – Romeo and Juliet, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Derngate, Northampton, 9th September 2013

Romeo and JulietI didn’t know anything about the Peter Schaufuss Ballet Company when I booked these tickets, but it’s always good to catch some well-performed classical ballet every so often, so we thought we’d give it a go. The company is based in Denmark, and Mr Schaufuss has been Director of London Festival Ballet, Berlin Ballet and the Royal Ballet, Copenhagen. Sir Frederick Ashton’s version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is something of a family piece, with the original Juliet being played by Peter Schaufuss’ mother, Mercutio by his father, and this current production’s Romeo being played by his son. Peter Schaufuss himself is playing the Duke and the Friar in this production. Ashton bequeathed his Romeo and Juliet to Schaufuss when he died in 1988, and one of the company’s raisons d’être is to keep Ashton’s creative spirit alive.

Luke SchaufussI did, however, find it slightly bewildering to enter the auditorium to discover this huge portrait of Peter Schaufuss on the stage, effectively hiding the set (such as it is) until curtain up. It reminded me of the ubiquitous pictures of President Assad that we saw everywhere in Syria a few years ago, subtly (or not) emphasising his dominating presence. I’m not saying Mr Schaufuss is a tyrant, I’m just saying that your average ballet-goer in Northampton would be more interested in the dancers playing the lead roles rather than the company Director. Once the picture was raised aloft from the stage, it all felt less portentous and intimidating.

Stefan WiseThe party behind us were shocked – vociferously and extendedly – that there wasn’t an orchestra and that Prokofiev’s stirring score would simply be recorded music churned out through speakers. That wasn’t an issue for us – welcome to the world of small-scale touring ballet. I was a little disappointed there wasn’t a programme though. The set consists of a plain backdrop and a few steps linking an upper platform to the stage, which provides for two separate dancing areas and four entrance/exit zones. Plenty of space for dancing, which I always think is A Good Thing. No expense spared on the costumes, however, which were elegant, refined and thoroughly beautiful. The lighting was also very evocative and rich, which helped to create mood on the otherwise featureless set. However, a lack of both programme and set can sometimes make a ballet a little hard to follow. If you didn’t know the story beforehand I think you would struggle to make sense of some of the first scenes.

Yoko TakahashiWe were very impressed with Luke Schaufuss as Romeo. He certainly looks the part and cuts a very dashing figure swirling his grey silky cape in a justifiably attention-seeking opening solo. His dancing throughout is excellent and he has a great stage presence. He is very well matched by his two mates, the imposing Stefan Wise as a jokey Mercutio, and Ricardo Pereira as a pally Benvolio; and the three of them dance some superb scenes together. We also thought Jordi Arnau Rubio as Tybalt was brilliant, and his swordfighting scenes with Mercutio were more dramatic and believable than many a stagey danced fight. Thaddaeus Low gave a very good performance as the spurned Paris, with a couple of very adroit solos. I reckon both of these young dancers could be Names To Watch In The Future. There was a very enjoyable performance from Yoko Takahashi as Livia, very energetic but accurate in her dancing, and Josef Vesely and Katherine Watson were a fairly terrifying Lord and Lady Capulet. I tend to watch ballet closely because I really appreciate the technical expertise of the dancing and I must say I was very impressed with the standard of ballet throughout.

Ryoko YagyuBut the absolute star of the performance was Ryoko Yagyu as Juliet. She had something of a shaky start when a slippery stage upended her during her first dance – although she was straight back on her feet and completed the rest of the dance perfectly. At the end of the scene she ran off into the wings in that delicate ethereal way that ballerinas have of almost disappearing into thin air, but misjudged the tiny gap available and crashed headlong into (I think) a bank of lights that created a horrendous clatter and clashing of metal offstage. That must have hurt! I half expected to see her return with her arm in a sling and wearing Pudsey’s eye patch. To be fair, she wasn’t the only cast member to come-a-cropper as they exited the stage – I guess on the first night that aspect of the performance was a little under-rehearsed.

R&JNevertheless she did a superb performance, with incredible pointe work, extraordinarily extended legs and a great feeling for the character. She looks really young, which emphasised the tragedy of the story and I have to say I found the end rather moving; Mrs Chrisparkle found it more dramatic instead, but at least both of us enjoyed it in our own way. You do wonder though, why on earth Juliet thought it was a good idea to take the sleeping draught; and why Romeo arrives equipped with a handy bottle of poison, ready to take his own life at a moment’s notice. Maybe it was the Elizabethan equivalent of an iPhone. He probably never went anywhere without it.

I didn’t have huge expectations of this production to be honest, but we were both very pleasantly surprised. If you enjoy your classical ballet and are happy to see it with minimal staging I’d definitely recommend this production. It’s sharing with Swan Lake this week at Northampton and then from 16th to 21st September it’s in Belfast. Well worth the trip.