National Ballet of China showcases Swan Lake on first Vancouver visit

National Ballet of China showcases Swan Lake on first Vancouver visit

The National Ballet of China presents Swan Lake, Feb. 27-28, March 1-2, 8 p.m. at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre
It’s a rare enough occurrence in Vancouver that it’s always an event: a full-length production of Swan Lake. The latest version of the 19th century classic to hit the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is courtesy of the National Ballet of China, on its first Canadian tour.
The production is being hosted by that most decidedly contemporary of ballet companies, Ballet British Columbia. Ballet BC’s artistic director, Emily Molnar, is clear about her intentions in presenting the company. “Seeing great dance is important, whether it’s ballet, flamenco or hip hop”, she says. “But I do believe there are truths in the classical form that one has to keep being reminded of. When the classical works are done well, they are an inspiration.”

By all accounts, the National Ballet of China does Swan Lake very well indeed. They will bring with them an enormous company of 65 dancers (but alas, no live orchestra) meticulously schooled in the old Russian way. Purity of line, extraordinary precision, and crystal-clear technique are company hallmarks. Zin Peng Wang is the company’s resident choreographer. Reached by telephone in Germany, where he directs Ballett Dortmund, he says that the company’s technical facility “is so strong because all the dancers come from the same Russian-based school. You really see this in the white acts, where the arms, the legs and extensions are all exact, all clean.”

Vancouver has hosted a handful of different Swan Lakes over the years. In 1986, the Kirov Ballet from St. Petersburg made its first North American appearance in 22 years here, with Swan Lake. American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, and most recently in 2012, the Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet, have all brought their own editions of the ballet here.

The Mikhailovsky company travelled with the 1956 Bolshoi Ballet version of Swan Lake. The National Ballet of China comes with a more recent iteration, Natalia Makarova’s 1988 production, made for London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet.)
Makarova, a defector to the West from the Kirov in the early 1970s, was herself a great Odette/Odile, the central female role in the ballet (infamously and inaccurately portrayed in the lurid hit film Black Swan.) Her production makes some significant changes to what is considered the ballet’s Rosetta Stone, the 1895 production staged at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. French choreographer Marius Petipa contributed the first and third acts to that production, which represent a village scene and a ballroom, respectively. The Russian Lev Ivanov devised what have become the iconic second and fourth acts, which take place at lake side and feature familiar patternings and set pieces for a stage-full of women in white corolla-like tutus.

The Makarova interpretation shakes things up a bit, joining the first and second acts together, re-ordering some of the dances, and perhaps most notably, including sections of choreography in the third and fourth acts by the great English choreographer, Frederick Ashton. Ashton, considered by most to be equal to (but very different from) the recognized dance genius of the 20th century, George Balanchine, made his Swan Lake for Britain’s Royal Ballet, but that company no longer dances his version.

Ashton left his 1963 Swan Lake to Makarova on his death, a measure of the esteem in which he held her as a ballerina. We’ve never seen his choreography for the ballet here, which includes a last act where a widening concentric whorl of swans represents the spiral of evil that is the magician Rothbart, who has condemned women to live as birds.

Quite a metaphor, and one of a number of things that keeps ballets like Swan Lake relevant today. “Classical ballet”, reflects Molnar, “must above all have meaning, in addition to its immense beauty and necessity. The dancers at Ballet BC don’t do classical ballet, but they know that everything they do comes from those roots. They take ballet class every day. They are excited and curious to see this company.”
“When we bring in classical ballet, it has to be at a high level excellence. The National Ballet of China meets that benchmark. They are true to the lyricism of the piece and their technical virtuosity is very special. Swan Lake is one of the best full-length ballets to demonstrate these qualities.”
Swan Lake