"And how many times have you seen Swan Lake?" asks the Royal Ballet's assistant director of my very young companion. "Only three? Oh lucky, lucky you."
There is a lifetime of feeling in those words. Petipa and Ivanov's 1895 ballet may still pull in the punters like no other, but for those who live with it – those who coach it, stage it, dance it, and equally those who comment on their efforts (mea culpa) – it long ago ceased to yield any surprises. Yet there is always hope of re-discovering that early frisson. A great production can do it. An immaculate corps de ballet helps. But in the end it's down to two people: Odette/Odile and her prince.
The casts put forward over the first week of the Royal Ballet's Hochhauser Season were not uniformly inspiring. To put Miyako Yoshida in on first night guaranteed selling half the house to Japanese tourists but not an ounce of daring or thrills. Yoshida's Swan Queen is a tame thing: impeccable in her balances and posé turns, and possessor of the sweetest little quivering foot in the slow final pirouette of Act Two. But do we ever believe in her tragedy and desperation? I cared about as much for her plight as for the filling of my guest-room duvet.
Her Siegfried (Inaki Urlezaga) did try, it must be said, to inject some dramatic zest into his lemon of a role. As he twirled each of the six princesses – from among whom he is expected to choose a bride – his face read more clearly than a string of rejection slips. He is a handsome solo dancer, and strong too: a miracle considering his injuries following a fall through a trap door during Giselle last year. But in his partnering of Yoshida he might as well be dancing alone in a glass box. No connection. No spark.
Fast forward to Wednesday night's cast and it's a different story. Carlos Acosta is the Cuban-born spitfire whose appointment in 1998 suggested that at last the company was prepared to add a dash of black skin to the uniform Royal Ballet beige. Audiences have already wised up to his high, plushy jump and impeccable classical breeding. His acting is a less-known quantity. And yes, there were moments when his Siegfried resorted (with some success) to looking good doing nothing. But put him next to Tamara Rojo, and vroom!, he was off.
Rojo's Odette does melancholy on a grand scale. Rarely is the Act Two opening mime sequence delivered with such urgency – breathless, almost violent in its torrent of feeling – as if she's thought: "Thank God! At last someone I can talk to about my mother weeping a lake of tears and that terrible curse I'm under." No longer is she part of a creaky fairytale whose plot won't bear too much scrutiny. Rojo's crisis is desperate and real. She's that nervy, erratic, soul-on-the-edge who the Samaritans should be keeping an eye on.
That she refuses to overplay her alter-ego role of Odile is only to her credit. Too many Odiles rely on cheap flirting and sneers to project the Black Swan across the footlights. Rojo puts it all into her dancing, allowing herself just one hysterical rictus of triumph at the moment Siegfried realises his error. And his tragedy is all the more felt thanks to the smug, cat-got-the-cream grins Acosta has been letting loose during their brief, athletic courtship.
Anthony Dowell's production is 15 years old. And it shows. Yolanda Sonnabend's grand and glittery designs, inspired by Fabergé jewels, now smack a little tawdrily of Eighties opulence. The sets are busy, and Dowell's direction is busy. Too much yak-yakking in the crowd scenes, too many distracting larks by Siegfried and his pals at the party. Would these young scions of empire really have wrenched crossbows from the hands of the sentries guarding the Queen's palace?
Rumour has it that the Royal Ballet's incoming director Ross Stretton – who has dropped this production from next season – is planning a new Swan Lake for 2002-3. Exciting as that prospect is, I am not among those critics who would dance on the grave of this one. Dowell's employment of the corps is magnificent, especially in the final climax when sooty-tutu'd swans weave in among the white. And the current crop of girls manage to swoop and stretch and flutter not just in admirable synchrony, but with terrific dramatic conviction. The final triumph is theirs.
Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000) tomorrow, with free live screening on Covent Garden Piazza
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