Swan Lake/Pennsylvania Ballet, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

As pretty as a (Degas) picture
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This marks the third Festival to feature Wheeldon's work. British-born, Royal Ballet-trained, but American by adoption (he is resident choreographer with New York City Ballet), he seems to have been anointed an Edinburgh protégé. A decade ago the same happened to Mark Morris, whose Hard Nut, a reinvention of The Nutcracker, was a smash-hit. With this new Swan Lake - well, nearly new, it was premiered in Pennsylvania last year - McMaster was clearly pitching for a repeat. For extra cachet, he invited ace-musicians, the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio, to play the score.

Young and gifted, Wheeldon makes pessimists rejoice that ballet does, after all, have a future. He choreographs all over the place, but most of his pieces belong to the one-act, plotless genre. He still, judging by this production, has some way to go in perfecting full-evening narratives. Call me pedantic, tell me about poetic licence, but I can't help bridling at how, by using Degas' paintings as inspiration, he has built his piece on a falsehood. Degas's ballerinas provide him with pretty poses, but Swan Lake was definitely not what they would have been dancing. Swan Lake was in Russia, the Paris Opera was in France and it wasn't until the 20th century that the two finally met.

Equally problematic is the blurring of fantasy and reality. On the one hand, the lakeside scenes really do exist since they are part of the Swan Lake the Degas dancers are rehearsing. On the other, the same scenes belong in the overheated mind of the principal who is obsessively preparing his role as Siegfried and begins to associate the ballet's characters with real people. He conflates the sorcerer Rothbart with a predatory admirer, one of those top-hatted men painted by Degas, who has been watching the company in a studio run-through of Act 1. The ballerina who has aroused this man's sexual interest is also Odette the Swan Princess.

If you think that sounds muddled, wait till you get to the ballroom scene which according to the synopsis begins as a real gala dinner, then slides into hallucination with the entry of the wicked Black Swan. Some of this scene's national dances are crudely transformed to reinforce the Parisian links - the Neapolitan even becomes a can-can. But Wheeldon's other choreography is more successful, despite leaving some of the weaker American dancers painfully exposed. The famous Ivanov and Petipa pas de deux remain intact and looked best with the matinée cast of Julie Diana and Yury Yanowsky.

The revised swan groupings do not improve on the traditional versions; but Jean-Marc Puissant's studio setting loses its drabness as dusk falls and ghostly swans appear in doorways or are silhouetted through the French windows. Meanwhile Rothbart prowls like a cross between Dr Caligari and the Phantom of the Opera.

Although the Pennsylvania Ballet is 40 years old, it has never appeared overseas. An incomprehensible oversight, depriving the world? No, it would be wrong to rank them with the top American companies. Quite other were the Russian musicians: revered as Tchaikovsky specialists, they brought finesse, drama and soul. They were the stars.

Jenny Gilbert is away

Comments