Swan Lake, Royal Opera House, London

The wings of desire
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The Independent Culture

The Royal Ballet's current Swan Lake is extravagant. Anthony Dowell's 1987 production piles on stage business and interpretative detail. For most productions, the third act's court ball is grand enough: Dowell turns it into a Venetian carnival. Yolanda Sonnabend's designs are Fabergé sumptuous, all filigree swoops and squiggles. Costumes heap velvet on lace before throwing in the sequins. It doesn't leave much room for Swan Lake as lyric tragedy, but the opening night was danced with verve.

Tamara Rojo is a pointedly dramatic Swan Queen. The carriage of her head suggests Odette's fragility; her limbs are strong and bold. Dowell's production restores the mime sequence, allowing Odette to explain to the prince that she is a princess turned swan by an evil magician. Rojo weights those gestures emphatically. It's an assured performance, but it lacks radiance. The movement doesn't flow through her torso, and her musical phrasing is blunt.

As Odile, the heroine's wicked double, Rojo dances with brilliant, steely finish. She swoops on the 32 fouttés, turning triples with fizzing ease. The seduction scenes are so grand they become mannered. Dancing towards the prince, she pounces forward before slowing for a dismissive gesture, a delicate flick of the wrist. Odile is mistress of the situation, but Rojo draws too much attention to her own technical command.

Her prince was more spontaneous. Carlos Acosta is a natural, supple dancer, with a creamy flow of movement. He's a thoughtful actor, paying sober attention to the drama around him. Dowell's first act is full of action, with bustling courtiers and chaperones. Acosta enters into all this, and his seriousness lends the production some gravity. His dancing is big, unforced and gorgeously clear. The jumps are softly phrased, and he has an almost lazy ease in the air.

At the last revival, this production looked very ragged. Two years on, the Royal Ballet is dancing with more style and much more confidence. The national dances are done with gusto, and even the fussy first act has more energy. The first act pas de trois was lively, with Laura Morera quick and sprightly in her jumping solo. Yohei Sasaki needs more authority, but phrased his solo with care. Marianela Nuñez was less musical.

The corps are better, too. This production tends to be decorative, softening the clean lines of Ivanov's choreography. Sonnabend's tutus have ragged, frothy skirts, and the swans curve their wrists and elbows to match. Even so, they're dancing with more weight.

The fourth act is the highlight of the evening. The swans start with slow, sorrowful dances, grouping and regrouping around their mournful queen. As the storm builds, Ivanov sends them tearing in circles, wilder and wilder. As they turn, they echo Odette's gestures, unhappiness mirrored across the stage. The walking dances have a new authority, and the tearing circles are thrilling.

Valery Ovsyanikov's conducting is strongest in the sweep of Tchaikovsky's score. It isn't a tender performance - not much intimacy in the solo playing - but Ovsyanikov whips up storms for the national dances and for the lakeside.

In repertory to 9 January. (020-7304 4000)

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