No flight of inspiration

Swan Lake | Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture

You might think that the Royal Ballet would be able to provide its leading Ballerina with a really good, regular partner. But poor Darcey Bussell has been handed on over a dozen or so years from one leading man to another, none of them lasting very long. Last night it was the turn of Roberto Bolle, a guest from Italy, to support her for thefirst time in the new season's opening ballet, Swan Lake.

You might think that the Royal Ballet would be able to provide its leading Ballerina with a really good, regular partner. But poor Darcey Bussell has been handed on over a dozen or so years from one leading man to another, none of them lasting very long. Last night it was the turn of Roberto Bolle, a guest from Italy, to support her for thefirst time in the new season's opening ballet, Swan Lake.

Actually they did a couple of duets together last season, but nothing extensive, and without any dramatic context. In Swan Lake there is a lot of lifting about to be done and a big romantic story to tell. Bussell is a big girl (hence the shortage of suitable partners) but Bolle is tall enough to look good beside her, even when she is on full pointe, and although slim in build he carries her around with no sign of strain.

So far, so good, but on the dramatic front things are not so hot. Bussell has obviously worked hard at her mime themes, and is attractively lucid - using her head, and especially her eyes, to emphasise the standard gestures. We could perhaps ideally welcome more expressiveness in her dancing too, as the tragic Swan Queen, but she is never out of key with the mood. She comes more brightly to life as the wicked seductress in the middle act, where the triumphantly smiling self-assurance of her dancing provides all the characterisation that is needed.

And there can be no complaints about the smooth expansiveness and strength of her solos, even when the orchestra seems to be having an unfair race with her during the famous fouettees. Excessive risqueness (and occasional lethargy) was Tchaikovsky's fate for much of the evening. But it was always so in this production - so blame Anthony Dowell's direction at least as much as the conductor, Alexander Polianichko.

Roberto Bolle tries hard to hold his own, but his dancing, although neat and proficient glitters only intermittently, and he does not give any real individuality to his role. Is he to be blamed, though, in a production where the hero is shown as something of a wimp, and a singularly ill-mannered one at that.

This staging has always been a mixture of good and bad. Good, mainly because it is choreographically more true than most to the historic origins of the ballet. Bad, in almost all of the changes that Dowell introduced - including such charming touches as having the Prince greet his guests by hitting their bums with his sword. When new, it looked as though the faults could in mainly be put right without too much bother. Thirteen unlucky years on, Dowell has stuck stubbornly to all his mistakes. Why should he bother when Swan Lake will always draw the crowds?

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