Now, as to the rest and why I think, in general, this performance is disappointing. Dowell was a very fine dancer: crisp, clean lines, elegant and satisfactory virtuosity, all in evidence here, as is his natural reticence which is out of place in this piece....... There is no chemistry between him and Makarova. He might as well have been reading the phonebook as he danced. In some ways he struck me as the all-purpose, highly skilled partner doing his job for the visiting ballerina of the evening. Makarova had great partners in this role throughout her career, most notably Ivan Nagy. Together they could make the second act pas-de-deux a truly moving experience. It's a pity such wasn't the case here.
Another drawback to this performance was the Royal Ballet itself. I think it was in a rather fallow period at the time. The swans sleepwalk through their part and are off-and-on sloppy. The various dances in the third act are a bore, the Spanish Dance is particularly ludicrous. Though Wayne Sleep does a very good job in the Italian number, everybody else in all the other dances reek of mediocrity, particularly the women. There's no virtuosity, no command of line or technique.... Where's the zest? It didn't help that the conducting was somewhat feeble.
In short...... if you are interested in having a record of Makarova's Odette/Odile, get it.....It's a pity she wasn't helped by the framework she was given but c'est la vie. With that very restricted goal in mind, you will not be disappointed. If you are interested in Swan Lake proper and plan in having only one version, stick with the Kirov.
DVD quality is quite fine .... the sound is ok but not much more than ok.
This performance of the Royal Ballet was filmed live in 1980 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London for an invited audience. Odette-Odile is performed by Natalia Markarova; Prince Siegfried is danced by Anthony Dowell. Choreography is by Frederick Ashton (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov). The tape is clearly filmed and has nice production values.
The waltz in the first act is Ashton's own choreography. I don't care for it because the steps are too loosely related to the well-known social dance for my personal tastes. In a typical Kirov performance, the waltz is an opportunity to show just how graceful the dancers are, but in Ashton's version, it evolves into a spectacle of big jumps and intricate footwork that, unfortunately, doesn't fit the character of the music very well. The highlight of the first act is Anthony Dowell's variation, which is beautifully performed.
The ballerina makes her appearance in the second act. Makarova certainly has a lovely quality to her adage, featuring nice leg extensions and graceful movements, however, there are other areas of her dance that are not nearly as polished. Makarova isn't an accomplished jumper; for instance, her sissonnes in Odette's solo near the end of the second act are the most lethargic I've ever seen on videotape. Furthermore, she's not a prodigious turner, and her supported pirouettes are often a bit rough.
One of my favorite moments in "Swan Lake" is the supported adagio from the second act. But, I don't value Makarova's performance of it, as some might, because she tends to prefer slow tempos. The music just doesn't sound as good when played that way. Because I have a busy schedule, I often like to watch the supported adagio as an excerpt, instead of watching the whole ballet. More often than not, I find myself choosing to watch the supported adagio from the 1969 Kirov film of "Swan Lake," starring Yelena Yevteyeva. I prefer Yelena, because she's so excellent at portraying her emotions and because she's an all-around accomplished ballerina. For those of you who know Makarova's history, you know that she was a member of the Kirov in 1969, but those in charge selected a different ballerina for the lead role in the film production.
Act three begins with a pas de quatre that was adapted from the rarely-used pas de six. It's more of a curiosity than anything else. Out of all of the national divertissements that come next, the Hungarian was probably the best, whereas the Spanish could have used more swooshy backbends and greater flair. The Neapolitan dance is one of Ashton's own creations. It's designed as a footwork extravaganza, but I think that it's on the circus-y side.
The highlight of the third act is the pas de deux (pdd). Normally, it's a showcase for dazzling technical feats, but Ashton has reworked much of the choreography to hide Makarova's deficiencies as a turner and a jumper. You'll notice that the introduction of the pdd begins with a lot of lifts, whereas normally those would be jumps by the ballerina. The highlight of the pdd is the variation by Dowell. He's excellent. Makarova's variation has been reworked, and one change is that the sissonnes were removed. For an example of outstanding sissonnes, see Maya Plisetskaya in the 1957 Bolshoi "Swan Lake." You'll notice in both Odette's variation and the coda of the pdd that Makarova can only do single pique turns, whereas her contemporaries usually work some doubles in. Only a few chaine turns are performed, those being slow and overly deliberate looking. Her weakness as a turner makes the pdd lack bravura, and the pdd ends weakly with Makarova hopping backward in arabesque. Plisetskaya's Odile can dance circles around Markarova's. In fact, I like Plisetskaya's Odette better too, because Maya has a super-flexible back that allows her to hit unique positions, and she makes the role her own with her fluid swan arms.
The corps de ballet work in the final act is nice, but it's certainly not up to Kirov standards. Although there's some interesting choreography to be found here, I cannot understand why Ashton took the leads off the stage for almost 2 minutes at the very climax of the ballet. In my video collection, this is one of my least favorite endings.
The best dancer in the entire production is Anthony Dowell, and it's too bad that he gets so few opportunities to solo. Makarova has a beautiful quality to her adage, but her Odile is in the bottom quartile in comparison to her peers on video--if not rock bottom. So, let me leave you with a few alternate recommendations. Either of the two contemporary Kirov productions (starring Galina Mezentseva and Yulia Makhalina as Odette-Odile) are very solid from top to bottom. My favorite commercially-available "Swan Lake" is the Plisetskaya version mentioned earlier, and I've included it on my Ballet Favorites listmania list. Do yourself a favor and check out those other tapes before purchasing this one, as this performance is highly overrated.