The Royal Ballet's Swan Lake is upon us again, a marathon of 18 performances, which would be more bearable if Anthony Dowell's 1987 production were not so screamingly awful. It's not just the fussy, tacked-on stage business of Act I that's off-putting – the drunken stumblings, the dropped tray – but Yolanda Sonnabend's Art Nouveau design concept, which is so hectic that it's hard to make out the dancing.
The immaculately precise contours of Carlos Acosta's Act III solos had to fight against a riot of mirrors, stairs, balconies, candles, and what might have been hanging cobwebs and creepers. It wasn't so much a crying shame as an out-and-out scandal, because you will never, ever see dancing of greater calibre: exciting without being vulgar, athletically astonishing, yet always elegant and stress-free. This is academic perfection and showbiz combined, physical daring accompanied by footwork so clean that it's as if the air was being segmented by scalpels.
Yet, we in the Acosta Fan Club also know that he is no mere stepster, but an actor of intensity and imagination. He transforms the interplay of the pas de deux into dramatic gestures full of meaning. He gives a seamless narrative continuity to his presence, even during "dead" moments, when he might be preparing for a solo or waiting for Odile to finish hers.
Tamara Rojo could have been overshadowed, except that Acosta is a generous partner, and, anyway, she has her own potency. Her feisty persona undercuts any notion of a vulnerable Odette, and she opted for an all-purpose solemnity instead. But she found just the right tone for her Black Swan role, going for break in the technical tricks that included dazzling triple fouettés and an extraordinary, minutes-long balance in profile arabesque.
Charles Barker's conducting accommodated this conceit, but, elsewhere, sensitivity to the dancers seemed sparse. Equally, if you thought that Tchaikovsky could never sound lumpen, you were wrong. You can't, though, blame only the orchestra for the tweeness that seems to infect much of the dancing: the swans are more circus ponies with their airless, small-stepping style; the first-act pas de trois is coloured with horrible curlicued mannerisms adopted by all the casts, so it must be the coaching. José Martin injects more bravura into the male solo than Yohei Sasaki on other nights, but that wouldn't be difficult.
In any other leading company, this part would be taken by a young virtuoso – of the kind that Johan Kobborg and Ivan Putrov are, except both are dancing Siegfried instead. Like Acosta, Kobborg is irreproachable, but in a completely different way. He is the model prince, modest and natural in demeanour, expressive and convincing in action; he is the model dancer, an exemplar of style, finesse and athleticism. He is the right partner for Alina Cojocaru, British ballet's current favourite, whose body seems able to bend and stretch to any requirement, yet who forgoes any cheap exaggeration. That tasteful restraint, along with a tendency to subsume any personality into the dancing moment, means that both her Odette and Odile lacked an identity beyond textbook specifications. The same drawback marred Jamie Tapper's performance, opposite Ivan Putrov, although her dancing was powerful, especially as the Black Swan. Perhaps the company ought to enrol an acting coach. It would be of especial benefit to Putrov, who fails to project anything, apart from a superlative ability to execute steps. But even this struggled for attention, because he was swamped by the chaos of the production around him.
To 17 Dec (020-7304 4000)
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