My first thought, I must admit, was, oh, here we are again, another ballet, another Swan Lake but then, what is this I see, the critics love it and are giving it pretty much five stars across the board! When something is as famous as Swan Lake and recognisable ballet in the world and strong imagery for everyone, for me, it was a mother’s jewellery box that opened to a moonlit wood with a pirouetting ballerina, to the music of Tchaikovsky, this obviously planted the seeds before I realised and Swan Lake continues to work its magic on not just ballet fans and packs out opera houses. The version that I have seen most often is the much-criticised Royal Ballet version, sister company of Birmingham Royal Ballet that has just been retired and recently I saw a turgid version in London by a Russian company who reduced it to a piece full of technique but little artistry. The version of Swan Lake that the Birmingham Royal Ballet have in their repertoire is by Sir Peter Wright, who has re-choreographed the Nutcracker that the Royal have in their repertoire which has been so successful because it is so evocative which is very much why I loved this production of Swan Lake. The ballet pretty much sets the scene for what is a heartfelt but somewhat austere production, with the prelude of a coffin, draped in sombre black cloth and led by mourners in black, although with the darkness, it took me a while to adjust and see what was creating such a dark atmosphere and what the large and imposing shape that was weighing them with a burden, denoting this as the ending British audiences are most familiar with, some preludes have Odette picking flowers!
This is the austerity Prince Siegfried, not in terms of set design or costumes, they are lavish, corps males are in dark wigs and beards with robes to the floor, the back-drop is heavy with the air of oppression, all designed to aid our mind’s eye to to the weightiness placed on young Siegfried’s shoulders and explain why he is keen to break free and surrounds himself with the carefree Benno and pleasant ladies to lift the atmosphere. Siegfried is a romantic, taking off with break-neck speed into the night, leaving the Palace behind. He is stopped in his tracks by the greatest beauty he has ever seen and their souls are knit together instantly as only at the greatest love can free them of their respective burdens. I haven’t always understood this from Swan Lake, the human drama gets lost in psycho-babble, Rothbart being the darker, alter-ego of Siegfried giving no reason or depth that explains his descent over the next few hours. With the intentionally dark atmosphere and presenting a Court and mother, probably in mourning from the amount of black and the absence of a King, the tone is set that shows Siegfried as trapped into producing an heir to save the throne and dynasty. A trio of Princesses from neighbouring lands are presented in a book, like their modelling portfolio and he rejects them all. He’s quickly lifted from the doldrums by his ever-loyal friend, dancing courtiers and a duo of lovely ladies trying to cheer him up, finally they pick up their bows to chase after the flock of birds, they see from the Palace window, only to be left dead in their tracks by the most beautiful sight that he has ever beheld in the Swan Queen, Odette.
The first Act sees some nice solo work with some of the footwork a little limp but then the tempo of the ballet was set at quite a pace, this was maybe a choice, to fit the steps in or provide a contrast to the white acts. The upper bodies of the dancers were perfect with expressive arms and confident, smiling providing a merry party. The male star of the first act is often not Siegfried, who, oppressed by his position and gilded prison, can seem a little insipid but it was his friend, Benno, that shone. Benno was played by William Bracewell, you could not take your eyes off him when he was dancing, graceful, long lines and great extension and jump. He has the advantage of a bright costume and smiling face and is the party-master to Siegfried. Siegfried can be less showy, more stately, dancer and performs intricate partner work. Siegfried was played by Joseph Caley whose presence grew throughout the evening and his partnership with Momoko Hirata’s Odette, was pretty much perfection. Before Hirata makes her slight but immense presence felt on the stage, William Bracewell is the star, commanding attention and interacting well with his best friends, especially Siegfried, leading through to the final, heart-breaking, scene.
Act II introduces us to Odette, and her most beautiful bevy of women who come to life as the sun goes down and they are released from their prison, the Lake of Tears. Odette transmits her story through historic ballet mime and the whole audience know exactly what she is conveying with her expressive limbs that are going to display such feats to leave the audience gasping. The villain, Rothbart, snarls and hisses pretty much at the audience and holds the beatific creatures under his spell, clad in an iron mask and is pretty much pure pantomime, although has an expression in his movement that is just about the right side of farce, as the tone of the piece is rather sombre, totally hamming it up would not be right. It is this act and probably the Black Swan solo that make this the most popular and recognisable ballet in the world, amongst ballet fans and non-ballet fans alike, nearly everyone in the world is able to identify the Tchaikovsky score or the pas-de-quatre with the girls moving forward in absolute unison, in pristine white tutus and feathered head-dresses, lamenting their captivity and protective of their Queen, Odette.
The audience held its breath as Momoko Hirata took to the stage as Odette. There is quite a lot of dancing before we see our Swan Queen and she stretched her limbs in a representation of those famously glorious wings that command the attention of this Prince who has caught her in the sights of his cross-bow. He is immediately transfixed by her ethereal beauty, in contrast to the oppressiveness of his surroundings and women that offer themselves up as joint inheritor of a rich kingdom, she shows unwillingness to be caught. Hirata is not long of limb but she knows exactly where to place them for the full effect and she dances with real precision but also with grace and artistry. Her flock are captivating, although I thought the head-dresses were on the large side and looked a little incongruous. They moved as one body with very elegant ‘big swans’, graceful arms and extension, danced by Yvette Knight and Yinjing Zhang.
This was a much clearer version of the story-telling than I have seen for a long time. The story had an arc and we understand better why these characters go to their watery end, the opening scene foretold that this was not the happy ending Swan Lake that is often offered up by Russian and Russian-influenced companies or the rather turgid affair that I recently witnessed in London by a Russian company who used it solely as a vehicle for their star to whip out as many fouettes in as short a period as she could. Nor is it the much-criticised Royal Ballet version that is a little ponderous. The Birmingham Royal Ballet have created anything but a ponderous version, the tempo is high which maybe accounts for some less than clean footwork in Act I, as the White Swan solos are perfect with lovely extension and expressive arms and hands. The interpretation of the relationship between Siegfried and Odette, I felt, was much more cogent, they were much more kindred spirits and Siegfried as danced by Joseph Caley, came into his spotlight with strong partnering of Hirata and I enjoyed being close enough to see the placement of hands to support his Swan Queen. The sheer effort that goes into completing high-intensity solos and maintain a princely bearing after this sheer physical exertion but it added to the atmosphere to hear the breathing, you don’t get that in the cinema, as much as this has opened the stages if the world to us. Act I sets the scene of a Court in mourning, draped in heavy black and with no King in sight, we assume that the weight of maintaining the dynasty fell to Siegfried and the oppressiveness of feeling trapped by his responsibilities and a political match, why he fell so hard for a glorious creature. Odette, herself trapped by a tyrannical master. Some versions either have Siegfried as a nothing, pampered Prince out for his jollies or a psycho-babble alter-ego of Rothbart, with the popularity of dynastic television, this made much more sense.
The Act ends with Siegfried promising eternal fidelity and the hope of tender release from Rothbart’s curse, the couple are united, briefly, before dawn and Rothbart returns and Odette and her swans return to the Lake of Tears. Act II gets underway with a more spirited Siegfried who now sees a future of love and rejects Princesses from neighbouring lands and their entourages until, that is, uninvited guests arrive, a very grand, Baron von Rothbart with his spirited and sensual daughter. The Princesses give us a few laughs, as they line up in their dazzling finery, lavishly decorated costumes, sparkling in the lights, the jealousy and rivalry is apparent in their acting. Sometimes this section is belaboured as most people secretly are just waiting for the fireworks of the Black Swan but as previously noted, this production does not hang about and the solos were enjoyable and did not hang about for too long. With such a delicate White Swan, it’s always interesting to see what the dancer will give us form her antithesis, Odile. What we did get was a suitably bravura Black Swan but again was in keeping with the story and nature of the piece, the right amount of sensuality and then mimicking Odette to lure our hapless Prince to his betrayal. Swan Lake is iconic also as it sees the leading ballerina playing the dual role of Odette/ Odile as she moves from white, romantic, Swan to Black, sensual Swan and this all leads to the pinnacle of the ballet as the leading ballerina executes the difficult fouette move, turning on one leg and propelling herself round and round, 32 times. It is an explosive, showcase moment that critics argue is to the detriment of the piece as ballerinas use it to show off their prowess and not to tell the story. In this case, I thought it sat rather nicely in this ballet and there wasn’t a, “here I am, look at me” with several bows, although the audience gave a rather noisy clap of appreciation to the detriment of Siegfried’s solo who was doing his show-piece turning while the audience were still loudly showing their appreciation. The male solo is equally as difficult but just doesn’t get quite so much appreciation, fouettes were immaculate, not too showy but definitely inspired awe and the ballerina did not milk the applause as can sometimes happen, breaking the flow of the story. The Act ends with Rothbart and Odile in the ascendancy, tricking Siegfried into thinking he was declaring his love and betrothal to Odette but instead being seduced into a match with Odile and thus trapping Odette in her icy tomb of the Lake of Tears forever. Siegfried is somewhat duped into falling headlong in love with a glossier picture of his true love, however, he does display a dangerous vanity as he cavorts across the stage, the showy pair dance ecstatically in an act of bravura than deep love. As an image of Odette appears at the window to warn Siegfried, he is too caught up in the grandeur to notice and starts the fall to his and Odette’s destruction.
I thought there were no surprises left in Swan Lake for me but there was an audible gasp from the audience as Act III curtain rose, dry ice billowed across the stage and suddenly, a corps of White Swans appeared from the murk. It was so atmospheric and genuinely moved the audience. Act III, the climax of the ballet, Siegfried seeks redemption from his vainglorious chasing after seductive Black Swans and desperately seeks his true love, Odette. The atmosphere is laden with betrayal and doom. Some of the greatest corps dancing is seen in this act as the dancers swoop in and out and form intricate patterns around their Queen in an attempt to protect her from first, further betrayal and secondly, the wicked Rothbart. Siegfried eventually wins an audience with Odette and works hard to open his heart and see how humbled he is at his somewhat unwitting betrayal. Rothbart makes his ghastly presence felt and I love the moment as the Swans form a guard of honour and Siegried runs with Odette held high, soaring above the earthly spectre. We want them to defeat Rothbart and keep running off to their glory but alas, Rothbart will not be defeated, except through mortal sacrifice. Odette feels the futility of her situation most keenly and has the least ties to mortal life, making the sacrificial leap and giving up her mortality to the ‘Lake of Tears’, Siegfried has a tighter grip on mortality and the responsibility of a kingdom and is also Rothbart tries to fight him off following his love, Odette and retain his powerful grip on the Swans. Siegfried turns to fight, knocks off Rothbart’s formidable mask to reveal a defeated, destroyed man whose power will also soon vanish with the sacrificial deaths, finally united in death, as in love, of Odette and Siegfried. The Swans finish Rothbart off as they flock powerfully. The final, extremely effecting scene is of mortal love between friends and confidantes as Benno carries the be-cloaked face and body of Siegfried. I have not seen an audience get to their feet so spontaneously and in such great numbers, there were few that were not so deeply moved by this work to stay seated. The appreciation was very much worthy. Even this Swan Lake cynic was won over again and fully aware of the power of this work and why it is so popular. Although, that said, I would like to see touring companies being more bold but then, it is our responsibility as audiences to lead that charge for boldness and support the Arts in any way that we can in this age of austerity.