Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; Choreography by Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa and Peter Wright
Birmingham Royal Ballet
The Lowry, Salford
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Birmingham Royal Ballet recently raised eyebrows with the announcement of a forthcoming ballet based upon the works of the heavy rock group Black Sabbath. Their production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is nowhere near as radical—this is a show that puts the ‘class’ into classical ballet.
Prince Siegfried (Mathias Dingman) is pressured by his mother to fulfil his royal obligations and ensure stability of the kingdom by taking a wife. His friend Benno (Enrique Bejarano Vidal) on the other hand offers more simple diversions such as alcohol and hunting. During a night-time hunt, Siegfried encounters Odette (Momoko Hirata) who is under an enchantment that keeps her in the form of a swan by day becoming human only at night. The curse can be lifted only by true love, but although Siegfried swears to be true, he is unaware the magician Baron von Rothbart (Jonathan Payn) has disguised Odile (also played by Hirata) to resemble Odette and take her place as the royal bride.
The storytelling in Swan Lake is in an exaggerated, grand style. The cast behave like characters in a silent movie, emphasising plot points with their limbs. Marriage is signalled by pointing at the ring finger and every hand gesture is wide and sweeping. To make sure the audience appreciates von Rothbart is responsible for the curse on Odette, the character wears a winged helmet.
Yet instead of being melodramatic, the prevailing mood is one of reflection. The ballet opens upon a society in a state of mourning following the death of a king and the subdued sense of loss never really lifts. Peter Teigen’s lighting (adapted by Johnny Westall-Eyre) remains discrete, never rising above the level of candlelight. The subdued approach allows for some striking comparisons with the white swans ‘taking flight’ in aerial leaps against a dark background.
Prince Siegfried (Mathias Dingman) is tormented not just by the loss of his father but the daunting prospect of adopting royal responsibilities. Dingman plays Siegfried as an outsider, overwhelmed by his responsibilities but too dignified to join in any festivities. There is a strong sense of isolation in his solo in act one, enhanced by his friends ignoring his feelings, preferring to get merry at the bar.
The reflective atmosphere ensures that, despite the stunning quality of Philip Prowse’s designs and the lavish brocade / velvet costumes (all 170 of them), the ballet is not garish or overblown. The costumes serve as a storytelling method—Prince Siegfried’s depression is apparent as Mathias Dingman, in full Hamlet-style inky clothes, contrasts with the stylish blue / silver costumes of the courtiers.
The most visually impressive moments arise not out of the sets or costumes but the dancers. The sight of 18 dancers dressed in identical white outfits gradually filling the stage and moving in perfect unison is stunning. The showstopping moment at the opening of the final act, with the swans emerging from a mist of dry ice, induces awe, not out of spectacle but the sheer grace of the dancers.
Odette is under a supernatural curse and Momoko Hirata’s interpretation certainly has an alien quality. Her arms and upper body twist in poses that seem unnatural. Odile on the other hand does not seem evil but simply free of constraints, Hirata’s movements in the role are faster and tighter as shown by the famous 32 fouetté whipping turns which become a joyful celebration of freedom. While Odette’s dancing suggests desperation and even despair, Odile has the freedom to display her sensuality. Although Odette and Odile are different sides of the same coin, it is not a choice between good and evil but rather someone who is trapped or free.
Swan Lake is a classic production of a classical ballet.
Reviewer: David Cunningham