Inside English National Ballet’s “Swan Lake” In the Round at Royal Albert Hall

June 12, 2024

Dancers gather inside the black-box theater at English National Ballet’s studios in London, readying themselves for their next Act II rehearsal of Swan Lake. Wearing a medley of colorful leotards and practice tutus, the corps walks through their spacing and timing with the help of Yuri Uchiumi, ENB’s guest répétiteur.

Watching the swan corps is fascinating. The dancers face all directions, with different formations of straight lines interwoven with circles and flowing patterns. Uchiumi looks down from a balcony above, observing the complicated choreography. The swans fill the space, taking up all of the black box, which is outlined in tape along the edge of the marley, forming a circle.

The company is preparing for Derek Deane’s in-the-round production of Swan Lake at London’s Royal Albert Hall, opening June 12. In this version, which premiered in 1997, the ballet transforms, setting Deane’s classic choreography on an oval stage, with the audience lining almost every side.

There are many layers to a production, from the dancers and costumes to the lighting, sets, and backstage designs. All elements work together to put on a seamless performance, and the Royal Albert Hall creates new experiences and challenges not seen in a typical theater.

The Dancers’ Perspective

Swan Lake in the round is such a staple of ENB,” says Ashley Coupal, an artist of the company. She will be performing opening night peasants and cygnets in Act I. “Everything is doubled. Instead of four little swans, there will be eight swans, and they will be on either side of the stage. It will be the same with Pas de Trois; there will be multiple couples performing to fill the space.”

Two groups of four ballerinas hold hands and relevé passé, looking over their left shoulder. One group faces the front, the other faces the back. They all wear white tutus, white feathered headpieces, tights and pointe shoes. They are bathed in blue light.
Dancers of English National Ballet perform the “Dance of the Cygnets” in Derek Deane’s Swan Lake in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, courtesy ENB.

Due to the size of Royal Albert Hall (over 5,000 seats), ENB is bringing in a number of guest artists to strengthen the cast numbers. Forty-eight additional women and 15 men will be joining the main company for this run of Swan Lake. “It’s always fun to meet new dancers,” says Coupal. “ENB is such a welcoming company, and I’m excited to be able to perform with new friends.”

For these performances, the audience has multiple views of the stage, with the Stalls and Boxes along the edge, and the Tiers, Choir, and Rausing Circle giving viewers an overhead perspective.

Emma Hawes, an ENB lead principal, is one of the dancers cast as Odette/Odile. This is Hawes’ favorite role to perform, however this will be her first time performing Swan Lake in the round.

“You’re on the same level as the audience, as well as having them above you, which is a different vantage point as a dancer,” says Hawes. “It requires a lot of focus, having the audience surrounding you, especially when you’re dealing with things that are very technical. There will be times where I will have to stand at the front of the stage after a difficult moment, making it look as calm as possible, while trying not to breathe too heavily.”

“You’re more vulnerable to the audience’s energy,” Hawes continues. “When people respond to things, you can’t help but respond as well, which is something you don’t normally pick up on in a proscenium theater.”

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta rehearse a pas de dux in a large dance studio. Hawes does a penché arabesque with her right arm raised high and her left arm out to the side as Aitor stands behind her and holds both hands. She wears a black leotard, black practice tutu, pink tights and pointe shoes. HE wears a black t-shirt, gray shorts, white socks and ballet slippers.
Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in rehearsal for Swan Lake. Photo by Isabella Turolla, courtesy ENB.

The size of the arena is also an adjustment, especially with the amount of running required in Swan Lake. “It will be a bit more mileage,” says Hawes. “Despite the Albert Hall being so enormous, it feels more intimate because you are so much closer to the audience.”

Costume Details

To make sure the dancers can take to the stage smoothly, there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes.

Samantha Gilsenan, a senior wardrobe assistant with ENB, is in charge of men’s costuming.

“For a production in a proscenium theater, we’re looking for the overall look,” says Gilsenan. “The audience is not as completely focused on the details. Instead, you need something that looks nice in essence and pleasing on the stage.”

“In the round, you need both,” Gilsenan continues. “There is a whole other element to costuming because the audience is going to be seeing everything up close, especially the swans. There are so many swans in this version and the first few rows of the Albert Hall are within touching distance of them.”

Because of this, the swan costumes need to look as pristine and as white as possible. “We use a nailbrush, a baby sponge, and a hair dryer to clean the tutus,” says Gilsenan. “The dancers are working really hard, so they sweat. Since they have makeup on, it drips and gets on the top skirts. We check for things like this daily. There will be one day a week where it’s a full-on tutu day, meaning we check for lipstick, smudges of makeup, and clean any stains on them.”

Lighting and Production

With the audience surrounding almost all sides of the stage, the lighting and stage production must change as well.

“It’s a tough job for the lighting designer,” says Todd Baxter, deputy technical director with ENB. “They have to get away from the traditional approaches to theater lighting and design, as there are certain techniques that you can’t use. For example, if you were backlighting a dancer from one position and front-lighting them from another angle, it would look different in certain places.” The lighting designer has to forgo those techniques and come up with new ways to find a focus in the space, while managing to light all the dancers without capturing the audience.

There is also the difficult task of giving everyone in the audience the same experience. “If you’re sitting in a proscenium theater, you may have a slightly different view, but you’d argue that the experience is similar,” says Baxter. “Here, it is such a huge room.”

In a large circular arena, a female corps de ballet in white tutus and feathered headpieces make a half circle formation in packed rows. They sit on the floor and bend over their extended front leg, their arms stretched long with their hands meeting. They are bathed in blue light.
English National Ballet in Swan Lake in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo, courtesy ENB.

For example, if someone is sitting in the Stalls, they are most likely nearer than they have ever been at a performance. “Being that connected is one experience, but if you were watching from the upper levels and got to see the patterns and formations of those 60 swans, then it is completely different,” says Baxter. “I think the arena does an amazing job of giving the people upstairs just as good of an experience in comparison to the people downstairs.”

Through all elements of a performance, dancing a ballet in the round is new and refreshing for all involved. “It’s so special because you can see every intricate detail,” says Coupal. “You feel so connected to the audience. Dancing in-the-round is such an immersive experience.”

Swan Lake in the round will run from June 12–23 at the Royal Albert Hall in London.