Swan Lake, by Ballet Nacional de Cuba

Sarah KirkupThu 1st April 2010

How did the visitors go down at the London Coliseum?

It was interesting to attend the second night of the much-awaited London Coliseum debut by the Ballet Nacional de Cuba yesterday evening. The opening night had already been lambasted by the critics – and that was even taking into account the fact that Cuban-born Royal Ballet star Carlos Acosta was dancing. The second night, by contrast, saw the company’s premier dancer Elier Bourzac take the role of Prince Siegfried, but the silver lining was that Costa’s nephew, Yonas Acosta, was dancing the Jester. Replacing Viengsay Valdés’s Odette/Odile was Annette Delgado – would her interpretation be less “exaggerated”, to quote one critic, and therefore more real?

As it happens, Delgado was, in my eyes, the star of the show. Her Odette had a touching fragility, her Odile a seductive air of danger. And she didn’t put a foot wrong. Her balance was exemplary, her spins dizzying. Bourzac, by contrast, was able to soar through the air effortlessly but there was no depth to his Prince – his gestures and facial expressions were limited and I had the uncontrollable urge to shake him. Yonas Acosta did indeed thrill – he’s as light as a feather when he dances, and he has that “cheeky chappy” personality of his uncle that could easily make him a heartthrob. It was just a shame that we didn’t get to see him do more.

Much has been written about the “stagnation” of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba – that, despite its long history, its ability to turn out world-class dancers and its continued support from its creator (the formidable Alicia Alonso), it needs to move into the 21st century. And I have to admit, last night’s performance did seem outdated – it moved from one set piece to another, lacking any continuous narrative thread, and the costumes were flimsy to say the least (cue: costume malfunction in Act III, handled admirably by the dancer in question who, with an almost audible sigh of relief, tossed his unwieldly hat into the wings). But the dancers are undoubtedly talented, and there was a sense that they really wanted to be here – to dance for London Coliseum-goers for the first time.

There’s always a degree of unknown when it comes to the music at these sorts of events. The orchestra is usually cobbled together for the occasion and, lacking the regular rehearsal time and therefore overall rapport of, say, ENO’s regular band, the results can sometimes be a little off-centre. Unfortunately, this was the case last night. The orchestra, “assembled from some of the finest musicians in London” according to the programme, started well enough, if a little tentatively. The strings lacked warmth to begin with, but lead violinist Abigail Young did a terrific job in her “pas de deux” solos, as did principal cello Andrew Fuller. I was also impressed by the woodwind, in particular the principal flute and oboe. But it was in the finer details that the orchestra fell down. Tuning was an issue, particularly in the brass sections, and there were a few moments where I found myself visibly wincing. And then there was the heart-in-the-mouth moment of Act III when, as the Prince finished his virtuosic solo number, a lone violin played where it shouldn’t have done, thereby ruining the whole piece. In addition, conductor Giovanni Duarte dictated some very abrupt tempo changes – so abrupt, in fact, that it was a wonder the dancers could keep up.

You’ve heard of mixed bills – this was a mixed bag. Moments of beauty and technical wizardry – the pas de deux of Acts II and III, the famous “Dance of the Cygnets” – were juxtaposed against some less-than-convincing acting, shabby sets and, at times, costumes that had seen better days. A rival for a Royal Ballet Swan Lake? Nowhere near. But an entertaining night out, with some promising – and occasionally dazzling – dancing and Tchaikovsky’s glorious music to enjoy? Most definitely.

Sarah Kirkup

Sarah Kirkup has been Deputy Editor of Gramophone since 2010. She has a particular interest in the connection between classical music and dance, especially ballet, and has written about this subject for Gramophone and other publications, including those at the Royal Opera House.

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