When Carlos Acosta first started dance classes in Havana and faced the scorn of his 11-year-old football-playing chums, "Alicia Alonso" was their insult of choice. Such is the status of ballet in Cuba and the fame of its most celebrated ballerina, even kids on the street know who she is.
Swan Lake was the first ballet Alonso staged for her Havana-based company in 1948, intending that it become the troupe's signature work, which it did. Even so, it was a quirky choice to open the Spring Dance season at London's Coliseum. Given Cuba's political and cultural isolation over the past half-century, Alonso's Swan Lake is now something of a museum piece, if one that's still accompanied in person by its creator, now nearly 90.
It may sound like any other Swan Lake, and it follows roughly the same narrative plan, but its detail is often perplexing. In the opening scene, Siegfried's romantic angst hardly registers, crowded out by the antics of a mugging jester; the swan-maidens' curse is never explained, nor the role of the absurd straggly bird that enslaves them. More crucially, the tragic climax of Siegfried's swearing his love to the wrong woman is a woeful muddle, and the Soviet-style happy ending verges on comic as Siegfried's dispatch of his feathered nemesis becomes, quite literally, a pushover.
Alonso, whose chief experience of this ballet was of truncated one-act versions she danced in America in the 1940s, clearly made up the missing bits with impunity. It's also worth noting that the grand matriarch of Cuban ballet was partially blinded by detached retinas for much of her career. You draw your own conclusions.
Yet while the production's grip on the drama is feeble, and its design no better than can be expected from a cash-strapped country (the Queen Mother's throne looks like a garden swing from B&Q), its choreography brims with technical thrills. The Act I trio, which often has audiences forlornly wondering when the action is going to start, brings the house down.
The opening night also fielded dazzling lead performances, with company star Viengsay Valdes partnered by London guest Carlos Acosta. At first, his Royal Ballet reticence looked mismatched against the old-school rhubarb around him, an effect exaggerated by the staging, which has him stand about like a lemon for most of Act I. But once Acosta met Valdes's bewitching Odette, his dancing warmed to hers. She is not only a formidable ballet technician, but has mastered that old screen-goddess trick of looking mistily unfocussed at moments of passion. At times you had to blink to believe what you were seeing, especially when, as the wicked Odile, she hopped backwards on pointe across the width of the stage, while throwing back her head and laughing.
The company concludes its visit to the Coliseum with a mixed programme Tues to Sun 11 Apr (0871 911 0200).
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