Swan Lake on the Big Screen: Attention to Detail Makes an Old Ballet Worth Watching

Written by Gabrielle Nomura
Artists of The Royal Ballet in Swan Lake, Act II
© Bill Cooper/ROH 2011
Despite ornate sets and tutus worthy of The Royal Opera House, the unedited film of The Royal Ballet’s live Swan Lakeshown at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Monday, December 17, 2012, gave the audience a taste of ballet at its purest. It’s not that the production lacked excitement; the technical mastery of the dancers harkened back to a romantic period where being a ballerina was never just about tricks or extreme athleticism. For anyone familiar with dance, Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov is probably old hat. This approach to dancing is not. And, in Seattle, where Balanchine dancers have built an empire, it’s refreshing to watch a different approach to ballet. Needless to say, there were no limp wrists in high fifth position or crunched toes in B-plus.
In the ballet, Prince Siegfried (Nehemiah Kish) goes out hunting where he discovers a flock of swans. One of them transforms into a beautiful woman, Odette (Zenaida Yanowsky, who also portrays Odette’s evil counterpart and look-alike, the “black swan” Odile). In the end, he is forced to choose between death with his true love, Odette, or life married to an imposter, Odile. While she may have fallen out of her 32 fouetté turns, Yanowsky is a virtuoso dancer and her sexy, dynamic black swan in particular, was irresistible. While no match for his partner, Kish brought a refreshing, boyish Prince Charming approach to Siegfried.
Nehemiah Kish and Zenaida Yanowsky in Swan Lake © Bill Cooper
Produced by Anthony Dowell, this version of Swan Lakedraws on the style of 1890s Russiaand features “baby swans” portrayed by girls in soft, satin ballet slippers, as well as black swans in Act IV. The villain is an “owl spirit” (Alastair Marriott) who transforms into Von Rothbart, unlike in some versions, where he remains Von Rothbart the entire time. In addition to the ballet itself, this film shows behind-the-scenes moments: interviews with the dancers, rehearsals, plus, a chance to see minute details that would go unnoticed in a live theater setting.
Critics in the UK, such as Mark Monahan of the Telegraph, were quick to criticize this production for a variety of reasons, from Yolanda Sonnabend’s sets “that already looked dated when they premiered in 1987” to Dowell’s staging that “seems to grow in fussiness and vulgarity with each revival.” While that may bear some truth, it’s hard to deny Dowell’s choreography, which allows the dancers technique and performance to shine. Here, the dancers follow a tradition where attention to detail makes learning basic steps a slow process—there are no shortcuts to becoming an artist. This emphasis on mastering the basics creates professionals who make even the smallest port de bras or simple tendua thing of art.
Dancer Yuhui Choe illustrated this with her performance in the Act I pas de trois. What made this performance a standout was not just that Choe had an exceptional “facility” or fluid arms. Her arm movements, while flowery, stemmed from her back; her feet were sensitive to the floor and to the music. It was as if she had never let go of the joy of discovery from her days as a student. She seemed grateful for each step.

In another spectacular moment, Kishand Yanowsky dance the white swan pas de deux, Tchaikovsky’s score full of longing in the background. Yanowsky rides a wave of momentum after an assisted pirouette, succumbing to gravity as her leg unfurls in développé. She falls sideways with aplomb as her attentive partner catches her dramatically in the nick of time. As the prince holds Odette in his arms, she looks back at him with tenderness, just barely touching his cheek with her hand.

With moments like these, it’s easy to forgive details such as the owl spirit’s costume (No matter what production it is, Von Rothbart always seems to come across as a little ridiculous); the fussiness of the various swans who come in different ages, sizes, and attire; or the retro 80s sets. When the dancing’s this good, who cares?

The film is a glimpse into ballet that is technically masterful, but not mechanical. From the placement of the head, to the intentions of the heart—nothing is overlooked.

To watch the Royal Ballet’s film of Swan Lakeon YouTube or to purchase a DVD, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/swan-lake-by-anthony-dowell.