By Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, Thursday 7 August 2008
There was always a whiff of the circus about 19th-century ballet, with its exotic dancers, spectacular transformation scenes and novelty dance steps, so it is arguable that the Chinese acrobats’ Swan Lake is the logical next step. Back in 1895, Petipa gave his Odette/Odile 32 fouettées to dance because audiences clamoured to see this ballerina feet at every show. Why shouldn’t Sun Jiayin show off her own extreme equivalent – dancing on point on Siegfried’s head?
Only the stingiest of purists could fail to be enthralled by what these acrobat-dancers do. The Tchaikovsky score might be crudely recorded and the action might bear scant relationship to the original libretto, but there is magic on stage. As Siegfried sets out in pursuit of Odette (a world tour rather than a simple trip to the lake), he encounters hat-juggling South Americans, sailors who fly from one quivering ship’s mast to the next, carnival stilt-walkers, and a quartet of frogs who dance on their hands. Trapped by the wicked Eagle King, he is bedazzled by contortionists who undulate like caterpillars and lovers who dance on unicycles.
At their most awesome, these tricks are integrated completely into the stage action – juggling in exact time to Tchaikovsky proves to be a marvel. Some acts do, however, feel shoehorned into the concept. Roller-skating swans are infinitely less impressive than their ballet equivalent, and the clowning cygnets should be dropped. It is also a shame that the production engages so little with the story, with the Prince a solid cypher of a hero and Odette, in all her marvellous, bendy boldness, no tragic heroine. But, finally, who cares? These performers reset human limits. As Odette perches high on Siegfried’s head, her body arched in a back-bending arabesque, every demurral is drowned by the collective intake of breath.