Filling the 'Swan's' nest at Covent Garden

While the Royal Ballet production of ''Swan Lake'' has been spreading its wings in Tokyo and Hong Kong, the ''nest'' back at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden has not been left empty.

Swans from the Royal Ballet's sister company, the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet , have taken over the temporarily vacated territory, fluffing their feathers and preening themselves in spaciousness not available at their usual London home at the Sadler's Wells Theatre.

For Covent Garden goers, this has been the first opportunity to see the new SWRB production of ''Swan Lake'' by director Peter Wright and Russian ballerina Galina Samsova.

The ballet was premiered in Manchester in November 1981 to an enthusiastic audience and has since been seen roosting in various provincial theaters throughout England.

The Wright-Samsova production brings a continuation of British and Russian balletic traditions to the stage, with some interesting, unique touches to clarify its own version of the well-known story.

During the orchestral prelude, the curtains open to show a funeral cortege moving slowly across a darkened stage. The crown on the bier and the mourning queen inform us that the king, who is usually unmentioned, is dead, thus explaining why the prince is so melancholic at his 21st birthday celebrations and why his mother objects to any partying and bans all ladies from the court.

Tchaikovsky's ''Lebedinoe Ozero'' (Russian for ''Swan Lake''), which had its premiere at the Moscow Imperial Theater on March 4, 1877 (Feb. 20 under the old Russian calendar), has been called the greatest romantic classic ballet of all time. It is certainly the most popular and is performed worldwide by most companies in differing productions.

It is a ballet that lends itself to interpretation, and the choreographical technicalities demanded by the Odette-Odile role, combined with the emotional depths required for the characterization, can turn a dancer into a ballerina overnight.

Names such as Kchessinska, Karsavina, Pavlova, Legnani, Ulanova, Dudinskaya, Fonteyn, Plisetskaya, and Makarova have all brought magic and breathtaking beauty to the role of the swan queen.

The original production, with Julius Reisinger's choreography performed by ballerina Karpakova - a dancer no longer in her prime, who inserted steps that she was able to perform - was retired when the scenery gave out.

It is the St. Petersburg version by Petipa and Ivanov of 1895 that most companies base their productions on today.

But the stories do vary.

In Moscow, the Bolshoi's 41/2-hour version is colorful, with dramatic effect produced by the villain Von Rothbart's magnetic control of Prince Siegfried's movements and a happy, love-conquers-all ending with only the wicked magician falling into the lake.

Just down the street from the Bolshoi, in the Stanislavsky-Nemirovich-Danichenko musical theater, the ballet opens with a pretty princess and her friends picking flowers by the lakeside. Perching overhead, with gigantic wings that open and flap at wicked moments, lurks bird-man Rothbart, watching the girls. A flash, and he turns them into captive swans.

The ending comes in an action-packed climax, with the floor turning into great billowing waves that suck the swan queen under. She appears transformed into a princess again as a rock opens and swallows up the evil bird.

The London Festival Ballet company depicts Von Rothbart as a knight of the court (he must be bad since he wears black) whom the queen banishes because she sees his influence over her son.

In the latest Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet production here, Galina Samsova has drawn on her experience with the Kiev State Ballet company in the Ukraine, where she trained and danced before managing to emigrate to Canada to join her dancer-husband in the early 1960s.

She has introduced material from the Kiev version that is new to this country , has changed phrasing and emphasis on expression, and together with Peter Wright has added, substituted, removed, or restored choreography and music from recent productions.

Most noticeable is the ballroom scene in Act III. Here the customary four or five (sometimes even six) prospective brides have been cut to three (not much selection for the prince!). After the ceremonial walkabout with their long-cloaked ambassadors, the hopeful princesses follow the national dances of their entourages with their own classical solos, newly choreographed by Peter Wright.

For these cameo studies Wright has moved some of the original score around, using Tchaikovsky's pas de six for the Hungarian and Polish princesses and the second variation of the pas de deux for the Italian one.

It was a disappointment to find that Samsova has not brought her basic Slavic character training (with Ukrainian overtones) into the national dances. These dances tended to be insipid and could have been more flamboyant. Much emphasis is found in Soviet ballet schools on showing the differences between classical and character dancing. Character roles for most East European dances should be filled with an assured tilt of the head; firm outstretching of the arms; regal pulling up of the body; and confident, sharp footwork.

The Czardas dance especially was far too repetitive and too balletic.

The Spanish dance did appear, but was danced by Von Rothbart's cohorts (a Spanish villain?).

On the other hand, the precision of the swan corps de ballet was a credit to the two producers. The SWRB company proved its rightful place in the ballet world with its beautiful lakeside scenes, the swans individually contributing to a magical whole. Von Rothbart, resembling a scaly armadillo, weaves in and out of the innocent, transformed maidens and effectively manipulates their moves until his winged helmet is torn off in the last moments and, completely bald, he loses his power.

At the performance I attended, Galina Samsova danced the roles of Odette-Odile with a gentleness and serenity that complemented the moods of the prince. Even as the black swan, she is not the usual scheming flatterer, but bewitches the prince through her cool control and mystery.

She does not have the leg extension or height that is today's ideal, and did not execute the expected 32 fouettes (pirouettes on the spot, whipping the leg out to the side before pivoting). Instead, she turned jetes in a circle around the stage. But her swan queen was pleasing if not exciting.

David Ashmole, as the prince, was a dependable and handsome partner. When his few moments to dance came, he was very controlled and made it all look effortless.

Special mention should go to his friend Benno, played by blonde Roland Price, who gave the audience the thrills lacking elsewhere in the choreography with his scissorlike jetes en dehors suspending him in splits in the air. . . . If only he could retain that strength and technique in less technical moments.

As the curtain fell, Benno is seen carrying the prince's limp body out of the lake while the two lovers are reunited high above the glistening waters.

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