By Karyn Hodgkinson
It was surprising to learn that the United Ukrainian Ballet was coming to Melbourne. But Ukraine has already shown in so many ways, that it is full of surprises.
In the words of the producers . . . ‘that this tour is happening with a company formed less than six months ago is testament to what can be achieved . . . now [after the pandemic] Ukrainian artists face untold new challenges to present their work and realise their dreams.’ Indeed this tour of Swan Lake can be seen an act of defiance of the injustice that the country is experiencing and a declaration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and hope for peace.
Having seen many versions of Swan Lake, perhaps the greatest ballet in the classical repertoire, there are two differences with this production which are striking. One is the role of the jester and the other of Rothbart, the evil sorcerer. Here both are lead roles requiring outstanding technical skill. Rothbart is often relegated to someone running around the stage in a large cape or flowing wings. Not so here. Rothbart, danced by Oleksiy Grishun, was a powerful presence of menace and energy, exemplified by his large angular leaps. His black costume with short feathery wings was appropriately simple. Pavlo Zurnadzhi was well cast as the jester and his technical skill was a delight to watch. His many pirouettes, entrechats and jumps were beautifully and consistently executed. However it would be great to see him explore more of the mischief and fun of this role.
Kateryna Chebykina, as Odette/Odile, is world class in every respect. Her arm and upper body movement as the swan princess during the pas de deux, was mesmerising. Rather than keeping the same adagio feel throughout, she sometimes varied the rhythm and speed of her arms and head, as a swan does. These moments made the pas de deux even more compelling. Also her arms seemed separate from her torso as they reached far behind her then rippled bonelessly offstage, as if flying. Chebykina’s Odile was menacing and showy, complete with those 32 fouettes. Oleksii Kniazkov as Prince Siegried, was an excellent technical and emotional match to Chebykina.
As the company matures, the corps de ballet will find its stride. As it is, the male corps seems more of a mixed bag regarding technical ability. The female swan corps were well rehearsed, deftly supporting the leads. The little swans, Anastasia Bakum, Polina Dzhura, Alvina Krout and Daria Manoilo did justice to this iconic dance, though a little tentative.
The splendour of the set in Act II, the ballroom, may take your breath away and the costumes for the international dances are beautifully designed. A highlight of the celebrations was the harlequin troupe whose acrobatics, technical precision and antics provide much fun. Finally, the set for Act III provides a beautiful backdrop to the unusual ‘happy’ ending of this Swan Lake. Siegfried tears off one of Rothbart’s wings and kills him. It is more usual that the betrayed Odette throws herself into the lake with Siegfried following her. Their tragic deaths break Rothbart’s spell, enabling the swans to become women again, permanently. It is no accident that this production chose this happy ending, where ‘evil’ does not triumph, symbolising the aspirations of Ukraine itself.
To make this performance even better requires addressing a common complaint of narrative ballet – the acting. The marriage of ‘technique’ with the ‘heart’ is how the magic really happens. Tchaikovsky’s superb score leads the way. It would be gratifying to see more attention given to how dancers access authentic emotional responses in their work.
The evening ended with the company singing the Ukrainian national anthem with several national flags proudly displayed. This brought the whole auditorium to its feet. What a great evening of ballet in solidarity. Congratulations to all involved!
Images: Ben Vella