to be the heir is also not a bed of feathers

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta (Laurent liotardo)

In a week when a spare prince consumes our thoughts, Swan Lake from the English National Ballet reminds us that being the heir is not a bed of feathers either. To forget punches and the Elizabeth Arden-Tchaikovsky creme ups the ante with relentless curses and moonlit swans.

Siegfried is an aimless prince – his face falls when his mother reminds him that it’s time to marry and carry on the dynasty. Immersed in sulky agitation, he raises his arms, lost in a thicket of confusion. Aitor Arrieta, the Basque dancer leading the cast of ENB’s first night, is an elegant but understated performer and portrays an introspective and not too bright hero. Draw your own princely parallels.

This production of the Russian classic was created by Derek Deane in 1997 for arenas like the Royal Albert Hall. A few years later he re-enacted it for conventional theaters – and in 2011 a BBC documentary infamously filmed him beating ENB dancers in a show of hissyfit privilege. The current cast is remarkably drilled but hopefully not fear-driven.

Iconic swans cluster under a watery moon. Led with grandeur by Precious Adams and Emily Suzuki, 22 dancers seem to breathe in unison, whirling in anxious circles or whispering on the go. A nearby spectator has sung along to all the great tunes: conductor Daniel Parkinson also savors Tchaikovsky’s melodies. The magic is only spoiled by James Streeter’s distractingly whirling wizard, taking the acting to 11.

This sumptuous production needs its tracks to give it meaning. Emma Hawes does a desperate Odette, the enchanted swan princess – eyes haunted, wings crossed over her aching heart, shoulders hunched in trepidation. She and Arrieta don’t exactly sparkle, but they share a destitute interiority, retreating into each other in search of refuge. Hawes slows the drama to a dreamy silence, an enchanted moment when it seems the cursed fate may end.

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta (Laurent Liotardo)

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta (Laurent Liotardo)

Deane works his dancers hard, stuffing with footwork and flying hand gestures. The late Peter Farmer’s stippling painterly backdrops are a highlight, as are some fiery performances. Julia Conway notably adds bite to the lemony pas de trois of the first act and plays a crisp and haughty cygnet.

The third act, a palace feast, is the most agitated of the production, illuminated with a red mist. The national dances have adult confidence – a playful Neapolitan duet and a borderline slutty Spanish dance. Siegfried, on the other hand, appears to be an innocent dupe, and duped he is by Rothbart and the “black swan” Odile. An impressive Hawes here is fast to dazzle, slow to trap; crowns his triumph with a wicked laugh.

The ill-fated undulation of the harp opens the tragic last act, back to the lake, the swans’ arms flexing in grief. Odette’s hands float above her head – like our own miserable kings, not waving but drowning.

London Coliseum, until January 22; to buy tickets here

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