The dancing is so breathlessly passionate because it exists right on that fine line between love and pain
Swan Lake: the greatest of all fairy-tale ballets floats into Dubai
It’s surely the greatest of all fairy-tale ballets; a timeless classic that serves as an entry point into the world of dance as a lavish storytelling form. But amid Swan Lake’s grand love story, expressive ballerinas and beautiful pas de deux, it’s telling that when Pyotr Tchaikovsky, responsible for scoring some of the richest music in all of ballet, saw the production in 1888 he remarked: “Swan Lake. A moment of happiness. But only a moment.”
Which, if you pause to consider the actual narrative rather than the hauntingly beautiful dance work, makes perfect sense. After all, this tale from ancient Russian myth features a prince who falls for a woman (Odette) who has been transformed by an evil baron into a swan. Amid the protestations of undying love there is betrayal, tragedy and death. The dancing here is so breathlessly passionate, purely because it exists right on that fine line between love and pain.
Houston Ballet’s production, which comes to Dubai Opera this week, takes its initial inspiration from pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse’s 1888 work The Lady of Shalott. It makes sense: it’s a painting depicting the Tennyson poem where a maiden in love with Sir Lancelot defies her curse for a moment of freedom. Choreographed by Australian director and artistic director Stanton Welch, his Swan Lake – which premiered in 2006 – opens by referring directly to The Lady of Shalott; Odette floating on the lake in a boat, to meet the fate that will eventually befall her.
Welch has certainly received plenty of plaudits for the way in which his interpretation of Swan Lake both stays true to the ideals of the 19th-century production and finds relevances for 21st century audiences enticed by the likes of Darren Aronofsky’s dark, cinematic and Oscar-nominated take on the tale, Black Swan.
In Welch’s version, we see the characters trapped by the evil Baron Von Rothbart’s swan spell as women as well as swans, and there’s a far greater emphasis on the male dancers, who in the traditional show enjoy a lot of stage time, but not a huge amount of steps.
Such commitment to telling a fresh story is apparent right from the first act, where the hunt scene is full of masculine energy and dancing, before it finishes with all the women on stage. “I really like that yin and yang; that balance between the two sexes,” he told the Houston Press earlier this year. “Audiences today expect a lot from the story.”
They certainly do. Indeed, one of the most interesting versions of recent times is Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, back on tour and replacing the female corps-de-ballet with a menacing male ensemble. The menace in Houston Ballet’s version – particularly in Rothbart’s all-black outfit complete with cape – is similarly important amid the graceful beauty and emotional charge of the libretto.
Dubai audiences will enjoy that full emotional charge, too; this touring version features the entire three-hour score, complete with live orchestra and sumptuous set design. When the tears come by the tragic end, the audience might even agree with Tchaikovsky.
Swan Lake is at Dubai Opera from today until October 27, with tickets from Dh250