We 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.
The 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.
To 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.
It’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.