When Swan Lake first hit London over a century ago, it appeared heavily abridged at what is now the London Hippodrome. Back then, the Frank Matcham-designed venue’s stars were American import Harry Houdini and a young Charlie Chaplin. There were shows featuring elephants and polar bears and an illuminated pool containing 100,000 gallons of water that could shoot fountains of water to the roof.
The current outing for Tchaikovsky’s perennial classic by Derek Deane and the English National Ballet (ENB) is at another Matcham building, London Coliseum. There are no live animals and the eponymous expanse of water is only depicted, but there’s no denying the power of the ENB’s ninth version of Swan Lake.
The company take a little time to find their feet and it is not until the third act that all guns are blazing. Indeed, the first act is beautiful to look at but dramatically shallow. The dancing is superlative from the greater corps throughout but, while the Prince (guest principal ex-Bolshoi Ivan Vasilev) is physically superb and can leap like electrified salmon, there’s never a sense of the dilemma hanging over his head. Vasilev never truly evinces the required sexual charisma and chemistry that will let us buy into his character’s arc and agony.
As Swan Queen Odette and her nemesis Odile, Alina Cojocaru is faultless. The former Royal Ballet ballerina switches between delicacy and dynamism with a delicious fluency and finds ever new ways to deepen the emotional connection between herself and her amour. Her ivory Odette radiates sadness and joy with every flick of her arms and legs, her Odile is a black-clad bad-ass siren from tip to toe.
Overshadowing the doomed pair, though, is James Streeter’s Rothbart. The half-owl, half-man villain stomps and streaks around the stage in a series of gorgeous and huge cloaks kidnapping lock, stock and barrel every scene he’s in. There’s an alluring malevolence to his every movement and when he takes flight with his apparel outstretched, all else simply fades into the background. His strident body language as he works against the lovers cuts through the fey schmaltz, turning Rothbart into a veritable owl of derision. Like Tom Hiddleston who turned a supporting comicbook antagonist into a thrilling fan favourite, Streeter’s efforts dig far deeper into our psyche than that of his higher-billed colleagues.
Swan Lake is at London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ES until 18 January. Full ticket information can be found here.