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This summer, English National Ballet’s iconic Swan Lake in-the-round, choreographed by Derek Deane, returns to the Royal Albert Hall for the ninth time, ready to enchant, delight and inspire. But what does it take to bring this spectacular production to life?

The Swan Lake in-the-round phenomenon

In 1997, Derek Deane, ENB’s then Artistic Director, choreographed Swan Lake specifically for the Royal Albert Hall. The dancing would take place in the central oval floor of the Hall, with the audience in the Stalls, Boxes and Gallery, seated around, and not just in front of, the performers.

This was an ambitious undertaking but the world premiere performances, from 29 May – 11 June 1997, were a huge success, and the production continues to astound. Between 1997 and today, the Company has given 139 performances, seen by more than 650,000 audience members across the world, including London, Manchester, Glasgow, Hong Kong, Australia and France.

English National Ballet in Swan Lake in-the-round © Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in Swan Lake in-the-round © Laurent Liotardo

Filling the Royal Albert Hall with 120 performers

To make a real impact, Deane expanded the choreography, and the number of dancers.

120 performers appear on stage in this production – including the famous flock of 60 ballerinas, moving together as the swans. Each time the production returns, English National Ballet works with an additional 80 guest performers, on top of its roster of full-time dancers to stage the performances. In the run-up to opening, the whole cast comes together, taking classes and rehearsing at the Royal Albert Hall.

Swan Lake features some of ballet’s most challenging and recognisable variations. Perhaps the most famous is the Black Swan Pas de deux, featuring 11 grand jeté jumps for Prince Siegfried and 32 fouetté turns for Odile. This is a true test of the principal’s prowess, made extra challenging by having to dance around the vast arena floor.

Equally famous is the Dance of the Cygnets. To reflect the magnitude of the arena, it is danced by two groups of four dancers, instead of the traditional quartet, who move towards and around each other. Similarly, the pas de trois in Act 1 is performed by four groups of three dancers – each group facing the audience at a different angle in their corner of the round arena.

This clever use of the space makes the familiar choreography and story come to life in a new way, creating a unique kaleidoscopic spectacle.

Costumes and pointe shoes

Dressing all these performers poses a challenge for the costume department, who worked with designer Peter Farmer to create an elegant and opulent world.

Over 130 swan tutus have been made since the show’s premiere in 1997. It takes as much as 70 hours to complete a single one of them – that’s 9,380 hours of cutting, sewing, and embellishing, to create a dazzling on-stage effect.

Each tutu and bodice feature a variety of decorative elements, including 26 small lace feathers with real feathers attached, 6 medium lace feathers and 12 large lace feathers. Each tutu is also made with 10 meters of net – the 60 swans on stage wear 600 meters of net between them. That’s more than enough to wrap the Royal Albert Hall from the outside!

Many of the costumes – swans, princesses, courtiers and more – from 1997 are still being used today, thanks to the meticulous refurbishment and maintenance work of our Wardrobe team.

Not every shoe worn in the production is a pointe shoe. For this run of Swan Lake in-the-round, 120 pairs of men’s ballet shoes are used, all handmade to measure and dyed to match tights worn in the performance. The acrobats performing in the production wear specially adapted trainers, specifically suited for tumbling on the stage of Royal Albert Hall.

Swan Lake in-the-round © Laurent Liotardo
Fashion inspiration: the party from Swan Lake in-the-round © Laurent Liotardo

Transforming the Royal Albert Hall for Swan Lake in-the-round

To transform a concert hall into a stage suitable for dance is no small feat. The 600 m2 arena is lined with 200 floor panels, plus an additional 60 cut to fit the Royal Albert Hall curvature – all concealed under 24 rolls of linoleum.

Where are the orchestra seated? English National Ballet Philharmonic’s 72 musicians are located on top of a platform (made of 56 steel decks) near the Hall’s choir seats and organ – effectively playing Tchaikovsky’s iconic score behind the dancers, adding an extra challenge for the conductor.

English National Ballet’s Swan Lake in-the-round brings together hundreds of performers, musicians, technicians and costumiers to create a stunning spectacle – not to be missed. We hope you love it as much as we do!

Experience the grandeur of Swan Lake in-the-round this June – book your tickets here.