All together now

English National Ballet's 'Swan Lake' opens this week with a cast of 65 swans. Visions of Tiller Girls spring to mind. But why shouldn't a ballet audience appreciate dancing in unison?

Human bodies moving in unison to form a grand design create a very accessible pleasure. The shapes and patterns that constitute the human kaleidoscope of a Busby Berkeley number or a synchronised swimming routine are easy on the eye and need make no intellectual demands on the viewer. The audience can lie back and watch the pretty patterns while the music washes over them. Peggy Spencer, doyenne of formation ballroom dancing, makes no apology for unison's easy appeal: "The spectacle is so much easier to absorb.You see the whole scene in a comfortable glance, you don't get tennis neck trying to look at it."

Formation dancing confirms one of the golden rules of theatre: massed mediocrity can be every bit as spectacular as individual virtuosity. Unison is everywhere and the public's appetite for it has long been inexhaustible: can-can, Mrs Tiller's girls, Trooping the Colour, Riverdance, synchronised swimming, the classical corps de ballet. All appeal to the human eye's delight in patterning. A true balletomane might question ballet's place on that list but there has always been an element of the ballet audience that is more interested in the precision-drilled spectacle than the plastique. Indeed, there was a time when the audience's interest was even less aesthetic. In the last century, the tantalising prospect of girls galore had a basic appeal in a world where a red-blooded male was lucky to glimpse the legs on a piano. The idea that 72 pink silk knees and thighs might be available for inspection in a respectable theatre made the ballet blanc irresistible and every production had its vision scene complete with a few dozen girls doing relatively simple things to form ingenious designs. Critics at the time were not always happy with these ballabiles, arguing that they weren't in the spirit of the true ballet d'action but owed more to the inferior "ballets feeries", plotless, pulchritudinous extravaganzas that were the ancestors of follies and revues.

In fact, in the hands of a master like Petipa or Ivanov, an apparently irrelevant interlude featuring more pretty girls than would normally be rational or desirable could be transformed into a work's most enduring image and, on a good night, the symphonic white act could transcend the merely well-drilled and approximate the sublime. The vision scene in La Bayadere, and the lakeside scenes of Swan Lake with their ghostly squadrons of women in white, are classic examples of this masterly use of massed effect.

OK. Big is Beautiful. But surely size isn't everything? Surely the ballet's beauty and significance doesn't increase exponentially as one lengthens the cast list? Isn't there a critical point at which the aesthetic response gives way to sheer amazement that the world affords that many pretty women? English National Ballet's new production of Swan Lake which opens at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday will feature 65 swans. The critics' knives are out and words like "circus" and "dumbing down" are being used with abandon. This is not helped by the company's proud boast that 1,000 metres of net will be required for the tutus - an unwelcome echo of ballroom dancing trivia. Next they'll be telling us that Derek Deane's mother is sewing on all the sequins by hand. The other, possibly more valid, concern is that classical ballet cannot be made in the round. The Albert Hall's most recent forays into ballet presentation have not been a critical success. In 1993, the Bolshoi, lacking time to rebuild their ballets from scratch, "adapted" them for performance on a thrust stage but the views from the sides were appalling. Derek Deane admits to finding the Bolshoi's Albert Hall venture "vulgar" and "brash" but insists that, when choreographed specifically for the arena, it will work. "There is no need to turn classical ballet into a circus. This Swan Lake is just a large version of a classical production. It's wrong to compare it with a proscenium arch production. To say 'you have to have a proscenium arch to see ballet properly' is a bit pretentious. It's important to experiment." Patrick Deuchar, chief executive of the Albert Hall, has enjoyed huge commercial success with arena operas like the recent Carmen and has been trying to get arena ballet into the Hall for a while. The argument that ballet is a pictorial rather than a sculptural spectacle cuts no ice with him at all: "I view these things through arena spectacles. I apply a different set of rules."

Ballet itself originated as an arena spectacle in the ballrooms of the French court. However, it soon became a theatrical form and its steps and its productions were conceived and developed with a perspective stage in mind. Built into the choreography was the assumption of an ideal point of view (roughly the middle of the dress circle, hence the high prices). Peggy Spencer, used to performing in the round, is unhappy with theatrical dance: "I once had a long talk with Nureyev about this. It becomes very elitist because there's always an ideal position to see from. At the Albert Hall everyone can see."

Well that's the plan, anyway. Derek Deane, armed with a scale model of the auditorium and hundreds of pennies, is making arrangements for our entertainment. He is adamant that the result will tread the fine line between art and showbiz and, although he respects the hard work that goes into other massed spectacles, he insists that his jumbo Swan Lake is in a different class. "I can watch ballroom dancing for 15, maybe 20 minutes. It does make me giggle - the look, the hair, the permanent grin - but, God, it's bloody difficult. Riverdance? I only managed 20 minutes. It was very clever, very precise and for certain people that's enough entertainment, I suppose. Synchronised swimming is about shape, pattern and timing. It's not about feelings, it's not about telling a story. I've got 65 swans bourreeing and that can make you cry." Patrick Deuchar, the master of understatement, confides, "Derek has an exuberant confidence level."

Deane is actually less than happy at having to use 65 swans. He wanted 70. A normal English National Ballet production of Swan Lake contains a mere 22 birds and recruitment has been a nightmare. Once assembled, the differences between the dancers became painfully apparent: "It's very difficult when you have people from so many different schools. We have tried to correct people's epaulement, correct their legs and feet. We've had to get them all to work together musically, to breathe through the movement, which gives the dancing a different quality."

If anyone can knock them into shape it's Deane. In his four years as ENB's artistic director he has transformed the general standard of dancing: "When I came to this company it was at a physical low ebb. People who were coming for auditions had no stomachs, no backs, no legs." He has transformed these human jellies into an impressive corps de ballet. His efforts have been rewarded by a series of coups that make you wonder if a fairy godmother (or a Mephistopheles?) is at work: the company has won a sexy Prudential Award; Altynai Asylmuratova, the greatest Russian ballerina of her generation, will lead the cast of Swan Lake on Thursday and his company, shoehorned on to the cramped Royal Festival Hall stage since 1951, can now wave goodbye to "that dreadful place" and stretch awake at the palatial London Coliseum and the Royal Albert Hall. Meanwhile, Deane's London rivals at Covent Garden, having dragged their feet over arrangements for alternative London venues during the theatre's closure, will be camping out at the Barbican and Festival Hall. Derek Deane is far too nice a chap not to have fellow feeling for his former Royal Ballet colleagues but he isn't exactly losing sleep over their plight. His company, with a businesslike approach that contrasts so revealingly with the aristocratic indecision of Covent Garden, has scooped London's finest venues and Russia's greatest ballerina. Derek Deane can barely contain his glee: "You cannot imagine how pleased we are."

Right now Deane's only worry is marshalling his 65 swans through countless rehearsals in the Albert Hall. Peggy Spencer is very sympathetic. "The Albert Hall to us was a nightmare because you've got to arrange your patterns to fit a circle." Her formation dances usually featured a mere eight couples but she has been known to mastermind as many as 300 at Earls Court. Give her somewhere to stand and she could mass-choreograph the world.

'Swan Lake' is at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, from 29 May to 11 June (0171-589 8212)

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable