Short shrift for Swan Lake

Short shrift for Swan Lake

Hybernia offers an abbreviated version with canned applause

More than any other time of the year, right now Prague is packed with people seeking to explore the city’s rich cultural life. Yet August offers very little in the way of serious culture, especially on the dance scene. The best tourists hoping to see a ballet production can get is The Best of Swan Lake, playing at Hybernia, a theater reopened after successful reconstruction in December 2006 that plays mostly Czech musicals.

Swan Lake is arguably the most popular ballet in the world, charming audiences with its fairy-tale story of true love overcoming all obstacles. Hybernia is running a truncated version of the ballet, with a running time of 105 minutes (including a 15-minute intermission). The piece respects the classical version of Swan Lake, using the traditional choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, which premiered in 1895 in St. Petersburg and has since been incorporated into the repertoire of many theaters throughout the world.

Radka Zemanová, a dancer and the producer of this version, says she has adjusted the choreography only in minor ways to suit a small company. The cuts she made include the pas de trois of the Prince’s friends from the first act, and the pas de trois of swans and Odette’s solo variation from the second act. For visitors with no technical or previous knowledge of the ballet, the cuts definitely make it more accessible.

However, the production lacks sophistication in a number of ways. Swan Lake demands a dressed-up stage, but this version’s minimalist sets are spare, lacking invention. And the lighting does nothing to compensate for the Spartan bareness. Also, the fact that the music is recorded spoils the overall impression. It’s a shame there’s no orchestra, which would add value to the performance, as the famous leitmotifs, wealth of melody, harmony and rhythm in the music are enchanting.

The Best of Swan Lake
When: Aug. 17, 23 and 29 at 7:30
Where: Divadlo Hybernia
Tickets: 700-1,300 Kč, available through and at the venue

The dancers are competent, but not outstanding. The ensemble is composed of performers from various Czech theaters, many of them coming from the ballet company of the Josef Kajetán Tyl Theater in Plzeň.

“It wasn’t that hard to find dancers and engage them,” Zemanová says. “During the summer holidays, they are free of their regular season engagements and embrace the opportunity to stay in training and earn some money.”

Still, the size of the company further detracts from the production. Normally, it takes 24 dancers to do a proper Swan Lake. But, at Hybernia, there are only 12. The limitations of a small company are especially clear in the ensemble scenes of the swans, where there are not enough dancers to play with the formations and give the audience an expansive sense of a lake filled with swans.

Precise teamwork and consistent movement is what normally holds the attention of the audience, but, in that respect, the Hybernia ensemble misses as well. Ivona Jeličová (Odette/Odile) isn’t sure in dance technique and expression, and Miroslav Hradil (Prince Siegfried) lacks lightness and elegance in his interpretation. However, there are some nice surprises, such as the Spanish dance in the second part of the production presented by Petra Sonntagová and Ondřej Novotný, who make an appealing, fresh impression. Both of them are talented dancers.

It’s strange enough to be watching Swan Lake to recorded music. But, at many points throughout the piece, there is also recorded applause: It’s as if the producers don’t trust the performance enough to believe it will elicit a real reaction. The idea that this “sitcom applause” will force people to clap their hands seems a bit naive. Instead, it makes spectators feel like they’re at a television studio rather than a theater watching a highbrow production. And the intended purpose seems to have failed; at the performance this reviewer attended, almost none of the live spectators joined in the recorded clapping.

The Best of Swan Lake is not a heavyweight production, nor does it attempt to be one. It’s a perfectly accessible piece that seems to be attracting its target market, as it’s been running since July 4 and, according to Zemanová, drawing an average of 300 spectators a night. Plans are under way to add it to the regular-season rotation at Hybernia in the fall.

But, somehow, the spirit and atmosphere of the original masterwork has been lost.

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