Swan Lake, Coliseum, London
Carmen, Sadler's Wells, London
Feathers fly – and so does the hero
Monday 30 March 2009
As a production of a 19th-century classic, American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake is bonkers. As a night out, it's a surprisingly good time. The dancers smilingly take whatever Kevin McKenzie's production throws at them – and this first night also had David Hallberg's heartfelt, nobly danced hero.
ABT open Spring Dance at the London Coliseum, the West End season by Sadler's Wells. The Coliseum's bigger stage suits this company's expansive dancing; peasants and courtiers are confident and lively, projecting boldly.
Tinkering with Swan Lake is widespread, particularly in the male roles. Company director McKenzie takes this to new levels, doubling the role of von Rothbart, the villainous magician who turns the heroine into a swan. Vitali Krauchenka is the mime von Rothbart, sweeping about in a green cloak. Marcelo Gomes is the second, more dancey version. In the ballroom scene, he turns up in thigh-high purple boots, seducing all the spare princesses. This makes no dramatic sense; his turn upstages Odile, the heroine's wicked double, whose seductive virtuosity is the point of this act. That said, Gomes has wicked amounts of fun.
McKenzie leaves the most famous dance set-pieces pretty much intact, but gets unfortunately inventive elsewhere, moving the corps de ballet in random groups that don't add up to a stage picture. Zack Brown's designs are attractive in a magpie way: impressionist front-cloth, conventional fairy-tale court, a Brothers Grimm lakeside. Costumes are stylised, pretty 16th-century, but why put the male peasantry in Lycra lederhosen?
In the double ballerina role, Michele Wiles is lucid, but I don't know who her Swan Queen is. She has just one touch of vulnerability, moved when the prince swears he loves her. Her Odile is strong but lacks individuality. As her prince, David Hallberg lifts matters into another league. His dancing is clean, alert, with beautiful jumps. McKenzie's production may not be sure what Swan Lake is about, but Hallberg brings the fairy tale to life.
Antonio Gades's flamenco Carmen is now 25 years old. It's easy to see why it has endured. Apart from the draw of that story, Gades's choreography is well structured, with strong set-pieces. Yet this performance, part of the Sadler's Wells Flamenco Festival, has slackened; the company are fast but rarely fierce.
Gades created his Carmen as a film with Carlos Saura. As a flamenco company work on a production of Carmen, the story's emotions spill over into real life, leading to jealousy and murder among the cast. Gades's stage version has stayed in his company's repertory. Carmen is danced by Stella Arauzo, who also became director of the company after Gades's death in 2004.
The dancers are in rehearsal costume, with flamenco musicians sitting to one side. Sections of Bizet's opera are played on tape, sometimes the music they're rehearsing to, soon becoming the soundtrack for their own dramas. The dancing starts with massed, unison flamenco. The whole company drive forwards, stamping out the same beat; effective, but weakened by the dancers' blank torsos.
Some scenes are still striking. Arauzo is a strong presence, an uncompromising woman in red, particularly good in the quarrel scenes.
But the performance gets weaker. The big crises, jealousy and death, suffer most. This Carmen still has vigour, but it must once have been bolder, more raw, more powerful.
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