Cullberg Ballet, Barbican, London

The hair apparent
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The Independent Culture

From the first moments of Mats Ek's Swan Lake we know that his prince is a loner. Not only is he found isolated in the darkness, but his first gesture is to stroke the hair on his head, whereas we soon see that everyone else at court, and all the swans too, are bald.

Ek has changed the ballet more radically than any other choreographer, yet he is more true to the basic spirit than most. He takes it for granted (as audiences generally do, I guess, in spite of the usual flummery about wicked magicians) that a swan may be someone's ideal woman; and he adds the idea that the black swan Odile might be the same person as the white swan Odette, just in a less docile version.

We have, as usual, a hero seeking love, bullied at first by a bossy mother who wants to dictate his marriage. But he humiliates his mother's lover and also the girl, a pale imitation of herself, she offers him as a birthday present. The dream lover he finds himself instead is also tough and bossy, but with an affection that the music seduces into her movement.

A wake-up call, complete with breakfast, at the end of Act 2 shows that this was a dream, but the prince wanders off and finds the real (black) swan, returning home eventually to wed the white one and find he has not got quite what he expected. Well, that's marriage for you.

Ek tells this unexpected but convincing story in a fluent, expressive and wide-ranging vocabulary of movement, from jiggy little steps to the virtuosity of classical ballet, from almost natural but exaggerated acting to extraordinarily inventive twisted sequences, from fierce confusion to wildly comic simplicity. Just imagine a Swan Lake in which the jesters really are funny, in which those stiff little cygnets get their comeuppance in a trio of waddling ducks, but in which love finally shines through, not only in arabesques and embraces, but also in awkward but tenderly revealing contact with backs or bare feet.

The music is Tchaikovsky's, recorded by the Moscow Radio Orchestra under Rozhdestvensky; not quite complete and often put to unlikely but surprisingly apt purposes. Marie-Louise Ekman's scenery is unobtrusive, except for a big shell I found puzzling; her costumes however are striking and work perfectly.

The dancers ­ just 20 of them forming the full cast ­ are simply terrific. All the highly demanding roles are memorably done, above all by Julie Guibert as the two competing and compelling swans. And if I single out Asa Lundvik Gustafson's jester among the other roles, it is only as first among equals. A great company in a unique production.

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