Magazine article The Spectator

Chinese Wonders

Magazine article The Spectator

Chinese Wonders

Article excerpt

National Ballet of the China: Swan Lake

Royal Opera House

My first article for The Spectator was a slightly long-winded analysis of the state of Swan Lake on the eve of the ballet's centenary. It followed a far more pedantic four-part essay in the specialist magazine Dancing Times, of which the late Frank Johnson, my first editor, was an avid reader.

Although those writings were a passport to what has so far been a pleasant journalistic stint in the UK, they were also a curse in disguise. Since their publication, a few friends and readers have (wrongly) considered me to be the ultimate authority on the wretched 1895 ballet, and every time a new Swan Lake pops up they ring, write and email to ask whether the new production is good or not. Which is something impossible to state, as there are no fixed parameters to assess a work that has been historically manipulated, interpolated, mutilated, lengthened and rechoreographed 239 times -- at least according to my home-grown statistics.

To complicate things further, different memorable stagings have influenced diverse generations of ballet-goers, thus generating a number of contrasting opinions on what the ballet ought to be like.

Yet even in the absence of set criteria, there is little doubt that the Swan Lake performed last week by the National Ballet of China was an excellent one. This new dramatically and choreographically vibrant production by Natalia Makarova -- one of the 20th century's greatest interpreters of the work -- stands out for being straightforwardly traditional. This is, for a change, a Swan Lake that steers away from the theatrically castrating predicaments of an idealised historical authenticity and is also free from those embarrassing dramaturgical ideas that relocate the ballet in different epochs or populate it with a morass of superfluous political, sexual, psychological and historical metaphors and references. Makarova's Swan Lake for the National Ballet of China is traditional in the sense that it makes the most of the ballet's own performing tradition, namely of all the interventions and changes mentioned above, thanks to which, paradoxical as it may sound, the work survives today as a highly revered classic.

Peter Farmer's sumptuously luscious romantic sets and costumes put Swan Lake back in those fairytale Middle Ages where it was originally set, and the action is restored mostly in line with the standard Russian/ Soviet version, even though minor, intelligent changes occur. …

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