As highly anticipated debuts go, this one had a long time to build up steam. Francesca Hayward was slated to dance her first Swan Lake back in March 2020, the dual role of white swan Odette and black swan Odile being a ballerina’s ultimate prize. Arguably the best British dancer of her generation, Hayward is golden in almost everything she does, full of spontaneous expression and fine detail, a natural actor who excels in making characters human.
But this is a different challenge, as neither of these characters are really human: Odette, the princess trapped in the body of a swan; Odile, an evil sidekick to sorcerer Von Rothbart. As Odette, the main feeling Hayward brings is one of suspension, under a spell and in time – the painfully slow tempo making sense as she falls silently backwards into the arms of Prince Siegfried (William Bracewell). There’s intelligence at work but the result is a certain blankness, although there’s also a hypnotic quality to their pas de deux.
Hayward’s Odile, by contrast, arrives in Act III smouldering with self-possessed sensuality. But when she returns after the variety show section of national dances, a little uncertainty seems to have crept in. It’s the run-up to the famously fiendish 32 fouettés, a circus trick maybe, but the focal point of the act, and tonight they fizzle out.
Bracewell is another natural actor and while some Siegfrieds can be a bit cardboard cutout, his has fully flawed personhood, a troubled soul rejecting stifling royal expectations with the yearning reach of his arabesque. Yet when he meets Odile the transformation is immediate: his chin lifts, his jumps soar, his eyes pop. “I’ll be a prince for her!” he’s saying.
This production, by the late Liam Scarlett, valiantly attempts to bring layers and motivation to the drama (and has a brutal ending), casting Von Rothbart in his own dual role as both sorcerer and conniving courtier – an interesting idea, if not entirely successful. It boasts gorgeous, grand designs by John MacFarlane, well-drilled swans and a hard-working supporting cast – the vivacious Leticia Dias as one of Siegfried’s sisters is one to note.