Swan Lake review: The English National Ballet begins the year with a sense of flight

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in ‘Swan Lake' (Laurent Liotardo )
Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in ‘Swan Lake' (Laurent Liotardo )

English National Ballet welcomes the new year, and a new director, with a confident Swan Lake. Aaron S Watkin inherits a company in good shape. Under Tamara Rojo, it has upped its reputation and profile, particularly through bold commissions of new work. But the big, traditional productions are still the company’s bread and butter. In this revival, they’re at home in the technical demands of the world’s favourite ballet.

Emma Hawes is a long-limbed, thoughtful Swan Queen. She unfurls into the grand swan poses, with delicate preening gestures – a woman still remembering her transformation into a swan. In her duet with Aitor Arrieta’s prince, she shows the pull of different emotions: her fear as she glances aside, looking out for threats, and the gradual way she relaxes into intimacy.

Arrieta dances with flowing line and lyrical phrasing. In the first act, he’s elegant but sometimes dry; with Hawes, he comes into new dramatic focus. In the last act, he’s touchingly tender, entirely intent on her. Slumping to his knees, he keeps his head bowed, begging forgiveness when he doesn’t believe he deserves it.

Their chemistry is less vivid in the Black Swan duet, where Hawes plays the heroine’s wicked double Odile. Though their shared storytelling is careful and lucid, it could have more intensity.

But they sail through the virtuoso steps. Hawes brings a sculptural quality to her solo, and she’s authoritative in Odile’s famous 32 fouetté turns. In his own spins, Arietta has a swooping sense of scale.

Derek Deane’s production offers a clear, unfussy framework for the dancing, based on the traditional text by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Peter Farmer’s feathery landscapes and richly embroidered costumes evoke a medieval world. Daniel Parkinson conducts the company’s own orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, with some rich tone and bubbling solo work.

Julia Conway, Katja Khaniukova and Erik Woolhouse are alert and springy in the first act pas de trois. Precious Adams and Emily Suzuki are assured as leading swans – although I’m sorry that Adams, long a rising star with this company, isn’t cast as the Swan Queen this season.

The corps de ballet are in strong form. There’s a bright energy to the peasant dances, and some gusto to the national dances of the ball scene, particularly an assured czardas. But the swans are the highlight, dancing with power and collective drama. Flooding onto the stage, they move with clarity and a sense of flight.

Until 22 January,