Theatre Review, New Zealand
by John Smythe
They began skating, most of them, soon after they learned to walk, it’s second nature to them and it shows. The Imperial Ice Stars’ skill level is Olympic standard but Swan Lake on Ice is much more than a demonstration of technique. This production, directed by Tony Mercer, honours the story splendidly - a version, that is, with a hugely dramatic but happy ending.Vadim Yarkov (who also played the Prince in Sleeping Beauty on Ice here, in 2004), brings great clarity to Prince Siegfried’s rite of passage from bachelor-gay to sought-after heir to the kingdom, tempted by the dark swan Odile but truly in love with the white swan Odette. He lifts, balances and twirls his partners with effortless alacrity, suggesting an aikido-like ability to use the energy that comes at him rather than just force it out of himself.
As his best mate Benno, Andrei Penkine is a delight, so cocky and playful you want him to be more central to the plot. As it is, his suddenly serious need to defend his friend in the spectacular sword-fight sequence sees him grow up fast.
Anton Klykov’s black swan sorcerer, Count Von Rothbart - father of Odile - is an ice athlete of wicked capabilities, confronting his audience with the dilemma of wanting to boo his powerfully expressed villainy while simultaneously applauding his extraordinary talent.
What red-blooded man would not be attracted to Olena Pyatash’s dark-eyed Odile, but when Olga Sharutenko’s Odette emerges from the ten gorgeous white swans on a steamy ice lake on a starlit night … Of course the young prince, out to shoot game birds with his crossbow, is taken with her utter purity … But then that raven-haired beauty …. Has it not been ever thus?
Then there are the Gaelic girls, and princesses from Italy, Spain, Russia and Hungary, each one - with their consorts - bringing their own cultural flavour to their ‘audition’ for the role of queen …
It is advisable to get a programme ($20 but full of fascinating information) to understand parts of the story not necessarily brought out in performance. For instance it is not at all clear that the ring given Siegfried by his Queen mum then given by him to Odette is hanging from the chain that Rothbart rips from her neck (to use it as the means of getting his daughter betrothed).
But by and large the central story is clear, and the choreography and its execution rise well above the conventions of classical ballet, while retaining some of its motifs, to explore and extend the wondrous potential of this relatively new theatrical form.
To a thorough re-arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s score (exhuming, as I understand it, parts long since dropped from the ballet version), recorded by the Manchester Light Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tim A Duncan, the entire cast glide, swoop, twirl, lift, throw and spin with focused skill. (I’m told a ‘triple axle’ is the highest-scoring move in competition skating and this show is full of them.)
Along with the skate-based dancing we get point shoes on ice, skating on stilts, back-flips, cart-wheels, feats of great dexterity and strength - and a ring of fire to close the first act: all serving the story more, dare I say, than the average ballet does. Yet when Benno and Rothbart interact with us at the curtain call to check if we want some more - and we do! - the encore displays of sheer skill are simply thrilling in themselves.
Not a tutu in sight, by the way. It was Tony Mercer’s desire to set it in the Romanov period that attracted top Russian designer Albina Gabueva to this production and her costumes are fabulous. A special accolade, by the way, to whoever designed Odette’s seemingly flimsy costume to incorporate a sling that allows her to fly - a breathtaking moment - without a hint of bulky harness.
Australian designer Eamon D’Arcy’s sets are sumptuous (the palace) and evocative (the lake in the forest) and Gavan Swift’s lighting design enhances the magic a treat. Finally mention must be made of the technicians who ensure the ice is right on the night - and repaired during the interval - and others who bring exacting off-stage skill to the on-stage flying sequences.
If you’re a fan of Olympic skating, love a classical story well told and you don’t need to see dying swans to feel you’ve seen the show, Swan Lake on Ice is well worth a visit.