Our dark winter evenings are finally upon us and as I walked through a moonlit Cork City my breath appeared as a mist in front of my face, like the haze on the River Lee on a frosty morning. I walked quickly to keep myself warm and crossed Emmet Place to enter my destination for the evening, Cork Opera House. I have fond memories of coming here as a child and now as a student I make a habit of going there at least once a season to watch a show. That night, I was going to see Swan Lake, performed by Cork City Ballet. It is a story that I have been told repeatedly since I was a young child, through various mediums but when I saw the ballet production of it for the first time it was enough to entice me to return to the theatre for more viewings in later years.
Swan Lake first premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877, showing the extended legacy of this production over the years. Featuring the instantly recognisable music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake tells the timeless love story of a girl who is trapped in the body of a swan by day but by night transforms into her human form. She must find a way to break this spell or spend an eternity under the control of the story’s antagonist, Rothbart. In Cork City Ballet’s production, Russian ballet star Ekaterina Bortyakova danced the roles of Odette and Odile. She shared the lead role with her partner Akzhol Mussakhanov who danced the role of Prince Siegfried. Yury Demakov, who was trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow worked behind the scenes and provided the choreography that was used during the production. In a very real way, it allowed this production to grasp a sense of the past and connect with the Bolshoi Theatre where the story of Swan Lake began many years ago. Of the many retellings of this story that I have seen through the years this version threw in a curveball that I was not expecting. Artistic Director Alan Foley had commented to Cork Opera House, “unlike the unalloyed tragedy most people cherish, this version ends with a fairy-tale twist.” When I left the theatre and reflected on the entire experience and admired the way the company had used their creative licence to perform Swan Lake in the way they thought was appropriate. The positive experience showed me that a story that the public has been told many times over can be recounted in new ways one-hundred and forty years later.
Throughout the show it was clear that the emotion within the performance was central to the audience’s experience of the show. That emotion was apparent from the very beginning of the ballet in the sadness of Odette and the terror of Rothbart. While utterly beautiful to watch, this ballet took me on a roller-coaster of emotions as it progressed through the acts. I wept with the protagonist Odette in her moments of sadness and gasped with dread when Odile tried to steal Prince Siegfried away from her. Rothbart poised himself as the villain onstage and the production succeeded in sending a chill running down my spine at the beginning each of his scenes because of the perfection of the lighting and music with the content of his character. While the story itself was gripping, I couldn’t help but marvel at the skill involved in the entire production as the characters danced across the stage throughout the evening. Performing professional standard choreography but making it look easy is the mark of a good dancer and that could be seen within every dancer that night. The Dance of the Cygnets made its appearance accompanied by its famous piece of music that many people would recognise. One of the highlights of the performance for the audience however, was Odile when she performed her thirty-two fouettés in the centre of the stage. The audience’s appreciation of Odile’s skill was evident from the applause that rang out throughout the auditorium after her final fouetté.
The entire experience of that evening was enough to take my breath away. When a stage production had the power to give me a cold rush of goosepimples or a warm glow of security that is when I knew I was watching something spectacular. As the cast took their final bows and the curtains closed across the stage for the last time the excited chatter about what we had just witnessed on stage started to bubble up amongst the crowd. As I walked back out onto Cork’s moonlit streets, I mulled over what I had seen onstage. It brought together magic, romance, jealousy and sadness combined with incredible music and dance which made this night at the opera a night well spent.