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The Russophobe Swan

Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts
02/21/2019 -  & February 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, March 1, 2, 2019
Swan Lake
Krzysztof Pastor (choreography), Piotr Ilitch Tchaikovsky (music)
Vladimir Yaroshenko*/Dawid Trzensimiech/Patryk Walczak (Tsarevich Nicholas), Chinara Alizade*/Anna Czeszejko/Maria Zuk (Alix/Odette), Yuka Ebihara*/Mai Kageyama (Mathilde Kschessinka), Maksim Woitiul*/Shunsuke Mizui/ Francesco Leone/Rinaldo Venuti/Maksim Woitiul (Volkov the Hussar), Yurika Kitano*/Melissa Abel/Aneta Zbrzezniak (Olga Preobrajenska), Robert Bondara*/Carlos Martín Pérez (Tsar Alexander), Joanna Drabik*/Anna Lorenc/Marta Fiedler (Tsarina Maria), Lukasz Tuznik*/Michal Chróscielewski (Marshal of the Court), Carlos Martín Pérez*/Robert Bondara (Mathilde’s father Kschessinski), Vadzim Kezik*/Pawel Koncewoj (Russian Lieutenant), Marco Esposito*/Bartosz Zysk/Dan Ozeri/Tomasz Fabianski (Polish Lieutenant), Kristóf Szabó*/Rinaldo Venuti/Gregor Giselbrecht (Hungarian Lieutenant), Dancers of The Polish National Ballet
Les Grands Ballets’ Orchestra, Oleksiy Baklan*/Piotr Staniszewski (conductor)
Luisa Spinatelli (set and costumes designer), Steen Bjarke (lighting), Pawel Chynowski (adapted libretto)

(© Ewa Krasucka)

News of the Polish National Ballet’s resetting of the most popular ballet in the repertoire sounded both promising and intriguing. The idea of rewriting the story to fit the period of the ballet’s creation is appealing, especially as it’s based on a true story from the life of Nicholas, who would become the last monarch of Russia, namely his affair with the Polish ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, when he was heir to the throne. Unfortunately, the new intrigue did not live up to promising expectations, mainly due to a lack of creative innovation and an astonishing ignorance or distortion of the historic facts and mores of the period. Had it been set by creators from a land far away from Russia, it may be forgivable, but Poland is Russia’s neighbour and much of its history is intertwined with that of its much larger neighbour.

Few outside Poland may know that it once used to be a major European power and even Europe’s largest kingdom. Up to 1600, it stretched from the Baltic almost to the shores of the Black Sea. Following a union with Lithuania, its area was larger than that of France, the Hapsburg Empire or the Holy Roman Empire (the precursor of Germany). However, it had the misfortune to be situated between three empires: Hapsburg Austria, and more dangerously the expanding Russian Empire and Prussian Kingdom. During the late eighteenth century, it had been partitioned three times (1772, 1793 & 1795) and was incorporated into Prussia, Russia and Austria. By 1795, a once glorious kingdom ceased to exist and was only reborn as an independent country after World War I. That tragic history continues to haunt the Polish psyche. Add to that the Russian liberation of Poland from the Nazis and the instalment of a communist regime that lasted for over forty years. This antipathy towards Russia may explain the serious historical distortions in the Polish National Ballet’s retelling of Swan Lake.

In Act I, there is a ball at the Imperial Court, where the courtiers dance prior to the entrance of the Tsar and the Tsarina, a grave breach of court etiquette. Three Orthodox Archbishops are present at the ball. On the back of their robes are icon-like effigies of Christian saints. Icons are important in the Russian Church but they are not trivial decorations and it would be irreverent to put them on one’s back. At the end of Act I, a delegation from the Duchy of Hesse (Germany) arrives with a marriage proposal for the Tsarevich Nicolai. The Tsar boorishly rejects the offer in public, throwing the gift sent by the Hessian Court on the floor. Seventeenth century Peter the Great may have been a boor, but the Romanov Court was one of Europe’s most refined in the nineteenth century, and such puerile behaviour in public would be inconceivable.

Finally the premise of the Tsarevich being torn between his childhood sweetheart, Alix of Hesse (or Odette), and the Catholic Polish ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska (or Odile), is idiotic. For a morganatic marriage was out the question and love affairs of princes and kings were the norm. While the sets for the first act’s palace ball were elegant, the costumes were less than convincing.

The choreography was on the whole appealing. The corps de ballet of the Polish National Ballet of is of a high standard. The Valse des cygnes was an elegant demonstration. Nonetheless, some dances were bungled such as the Pas de quatre, where one of the four ballerinas was out of sync. The three leads were proficient but showed no outstanding technical prowess. Vladimir Yaroshenko as the Prince had good stage presence but his jumps were not high enough. More embarrassing, his landings were often inelegant. Chinara Alizade as Alix of Hesse was technically excellent but the choreography did not afford her special virtuosity. In contrast, the choreography was generous to Yuka Ebihara as Mathilde Kschessinska. She was exceptionally charismatic as well as a great technician. Whatever technical limitations were compensated by her charisma and grace. Her Pas de deux with the Prince was more appealing for its sensuality than technical brio.

Act 2 opens with military manoeuvres on the shores of a lake (not in the original libretto). Prepubescent cadets are intriguingly exercising among the professional soldiers. This incongruity seemed more like stage filler. The folkloric dances, the Polish, Hungarian, Spanish and Russian dances, appropriate entertainments in the original setting during a ball at court, made no sense during the military manoeuvres. If they were meant to be contingents from the various provinces, it made even less sense, as Imperial Russia never ruled Hungarian or Spanish territory and it would be odd to have female recruits in the nineteenth century. Surprisingly, the various ensemble dances were danced by the same dancers which made no sense either. Nonetheless, the pièce de résistance of this choreography was the Mazurka, Poland’s national dance. This was an amazing deconstruction and recreation of the Mazurka incorporating authentic folkloric elements. The moves were both graceful and virile. Marco Esposito, the charismatic lead dancer in the Mazurka was possibly the most memorable dancer of the evening.

The Prince’s tent looked like a Mongol rather than a Russian tent, possibly betraying the set designer’s view of Russians as barbarians. In that same vein, the evil magician Von Rothbart appeared in the Prince’s imagination as his own father, the Tsar. This may be explained as a demonization of the man opposed to his love to the Hessian Princess. However, it is hard to see this Freudian “magician” encourage an alliance with a Polish ballerina. In the Final Act, the Tsar’s death was gauche to say the least. If it was meant to be moving, it missed the mark.

The Polish National Ballet’s production of Swan Lake was a missed opportunity, considering that a retelling of the plot in the original time frame had great potential. Except for the recreated Mazurka, originality was sorely lacking. Little was made of the white versus black swans in a Tannhäuser-like conflict between noble and sensual love. And in place of innovative choreography, we were inexplicably subjected to misguided anti-Russian vitriol.

Ossama el Naggar



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