Music by Tchaikovsky
Wiener Staatsoper, 20 February 2019
The spirit of Nureyev lives on.
This was a high-flying, heart-kindling production of what Jennifer Homans has astutely called ‘the most imperfect but most powerful of Russian ballets’. We were given a Swan Lake with choreography by Rudolf Nureyev as well as Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, a quite remarkable version of the ballet that was, in fact, first performed at the Wiener Staatsoper itself, in October 1964. Then, Nureyev took the role of Prince Siegfried and Margot Fonteyn, his ever constant companion during those days, had the part of Odette and Odile.
It is a Swan Lake where the Prince Siegfried role, here ably performed by Denys Cherevychko, is both more athletically demanding in terms of dance and more prominent within the story as a whole. Indeed, there is also a psychological complexity here which is unparalleled elsewhere.
Siegfried is a hunter who is preyed upon, and in due course cruelly toyed with, by the magician Rothbart. His desire and resolve are tested and, let us be blunt, found wanting; it seems as though Rothbart is his dark shadow, since he seems to know Siegfried better than he knows himself. Like a predator drone, Rothbart can precisely tap into the prince’s feelings of weakness and unworthiness. And he always finds his breaking point.
Ultimately, Siegfried cannot escape his own nature: he wants the princess(es) he cannot have. He rejects the normal ones, the beauties of Spain, Hungary and the like. It is the otherworldly, swan-like creatures, the queer princesses, the captive queen, the damned and fallen that his heart yearns for. He wants something different. And his desire is always accompanied by an undertow of anxiety and dread.
As Odette and Odile, Nina Polakova was merciless. She could melt your heart and enflame it. Her Odette, a subdued and stoic princess, evoked manifold feelings of tenderness. Whilst her Odile, a seductive temptress with a fatal glamour, was irresistible. In Odile’s dance, as performed by the ballerina, you knew that she was too good to be good: her slick movements conveyed a diaboloical craft, held a magnetic fascination. She took no prisoners. (Incidentally, Odette’s back story has always fascinated me. Exactly how did Rothbart gain power over her? Matbe we will have to wait for the prequel to find out.)
For this performance of Swan Lake we were blessed to be in a position (a box on the first floor) where we could fully appreciate the kaleidoscopic geometry of Ivanov’s corps de ballet sequences, the white swans moving en-flock, weaving their star-flight shapes. And Petipa’s dance of the four cygnets, for many people the litmus test of a good Swan Lake, was superb: a wonderful display of mastery and courage and faith in comradeship. It is clearly a product of the same country and culture that gave us the policy of ‘Not one step backward!’ (Stalin’s Order 227) during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Swan Lake is the fruit of much evolution and compromise, which is perhaps in part what Homans meant when she called it ‘imperfect’. There is no overriding vision, or uniformity, to the dance. At root, it is Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score (not obviously ‘danceable’, and certainly not considered so by his contemporaries) that makes it great. That score will continue to challenge diverse choreographers, as here, and they in turn will make further demands on dancers. So, in time, the ballet will become more ‘imperfect’, more powerful still.
Nureyev’s (and Petipa’s and Ivanov’s) Swan Lake is playing at the Wiener Staatsoper now, further details are here.