In all my years of ballet-going, Swan Lake has been the most persistent phenomenon. With a legion of companies I have seen uncountable performances, variously optimistic, mostly inadequate, with too many that were affronts to classic dance, or insults to an audience’s intelligence.
Save only one. And there it was on Friday night in the Mariinsky Ballet season, a direct descendant of the 1894/5 production by Petipa and Ivanov which gave the score its enduring identity. Born on the stage where the present company still performs it; reverberant with the noblest aspirations of technique and interpretation that generations of St Petersburg dancers have brought to it, this account is the only one worth your time and money, the one where more than a century of devoted performance exemplifies Swan Lake’s power as choreographic drama. The text has been amended; style has mutated. But from the unforced nobility of the courtiers dancing in the first scene, by way of the long and prodigious traditions of the central roles, to the dash and bravura of the national dances in the ballroom, you see a presentation that can bear its name with pride.
There is, in this continuing life of Swan Lake, something vitally true about St Peterburg’s ballet which speaks of the city’s formal grace, its grand yet harmonious aspect, and the aristocratic lineage of its dancers. So, on Friday night, it took the Covent Garden stage in splendour. An impeccable legion of swans. The dances of the first scene shaped with an unfailing elegance. A Siegfried (Timur Askerov) of quietly dignified presence, of commanding technical resource, of dramatic sincerity. And an Odette/Odile from Oxana Skorik of fine-drawn beauty. She possesses exquisite line – eloquent for Odette; dazzling for Odile – and an intriguing air of mystery, of an inner passion. I thought her fascinating.
From the company, that dedication which illuminates and gives continuing life to what elsewhere is a cliché, a scandal, a bore. A radiant first act trio from Ekaterina Ivannikova, Nadezhda Batoeva and the soaring Kimin Kim, and stunning panache in the third act mazurka, with its four magnificent couples, which is one of the marvels of ballet. The score rang splendidly under Boris Gruzin’s baton.