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REVIEW: Swan Lake

CUBC’s headline production does not disappoint

Right from the off here, the expectations are high: Cambridge University Ballet Club’s annual full-length production is epic both in scale and in history. More than a hundred people have come together to present Tchaikovsky's 1876 tale of undying love, and the end result brings talent, hard work, and dedication to the fore.

From the first act, the performers made the hours they'd put into rehearsal evident. Characters were introduced gradually, and through their physical presence on stage the narrative was presented with clarity. Prince Siegfried (Doug Ross) is compelled by his mother to host a ball in order to find himself a worthy suitor, but the prince, disgruntled, departs to hunt in the forest. Standing-out from this expositionary and playful act was the Prince’s friend Benno (Felix Fabryczny). Fabryczny delivered one of the strongest and most confident performances of the night, bringing much liveliness and virtuosity to his role.

The staging was simple and effective: the eponymous lake was used as the main set throughout the ballet, and the mood was set for each act through the use of either yellow or silvery blue lighting. This minimal backdrop served a dual purpose of differentiating these two underlying moods while at the same time allowing the performers take the center stage.

The second act sees the prince encounter Odette (Emma Laister), queen of the swans, in the forest. The evil sorcerer Rothbart (Samuel Whittome) has transformed Odette, a beautiful maiden, into a swan; a curse which can only be broken by true love. Ross and Laister were both elegant, strong and defined in their movements, naturally embodying the leading two roles. The liveliness of the court in Act One contrasts with the natural elegance of the swans in the second act, and attention is drawn to the tentative but yearning dynamic between Siegfried and Odette.

A disappointing trend of the production was that, while the lead soloists of the play delivered consistently solid performances with lots of character and energy, some of the grand ensemble choreographies had a tinge of asynchrony and a feeling of approximation. This did not detract from the overall experience, and is forgivable given the constraints on the production. Transitions between acts and scenes also dragged occasionally, and the audience felt restless at these moments. These minor quirks of production are easy to iron out for future performances.

The third act is a cavalcade of virtuosic solo performances as foreign female characters present themselves to the court with elaborate dance performances. The personality of the performers was allowed to shine through here, and the highlight of the act was, predictably, Joanna Lawrence’s performance as Odile, the black swan. Lawrence’s performance was raw, animalistic and beautiful. She is at once a viper seducing its prey and a gazelle displaying its fluidity and natural elegance in her movements and body language. Her presence was a jolt of electricity to a third act that in its first half drags a little. This sequence culminates in the climax of Act Three: Odette’s heartbreak as she witnesses her lover’s betrayal in the hands of the black swan.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the production was the use of the music. It goes without saying that Tchaikovsky's music is an integral part of Swan Lake, providing structure and context to the visual presentation. Unfortunately, it was undercut by constant imprecisions in the way the music was cut into the show. Pieces were cut prematurely many times, or they ran too long such that a musical transitions did not match up with the transitions onstage. While only a minor quirk, this sometimes broke the dramatic impact of climactic scenes, or jolted the audience back to reality away from the scenes unfolding on the stage.

Act four is a brief but beautiful finish to the show, the performers presenting some of their best performances of the evening. The elegance of the second act comes back magnified, and the sorrow of the swans at the loss of Odette’s true love is palpable in the tender movements of the performers. Siegfried’s frantic search and reconciliation with Odette culminates in a face-off with Rothbart, and in the ultimate act of despair they both cast themselves into the lake. Their true love brings down the sorcerer’s powers and the maidens, now human, look upon Siegfried and Odette as they ascend to the heavens. It is a powerful, dramatic and beautiful ending to the ballet, and the iconic visual power of the ending is complemented by one of the most tender moments of Tchaikovsky’s score.

I left with the overwhelming impression that I had been witness to immense passion and dedication to the art of ballet. It is clear how much time and energy has been put into this production, and throughout the show there were stand-out performances from both experienced professionals and newcomers to the trade. Kudos to CUBC and everyone involved for putting together a wonderful evening.