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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by David Mead

October 4, 2012 -- Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, UK

“Swan Lake” is not a fairy story in the “Sleeping Beauty” mould. If you need convincing, just listen to some of the complex and moody themes in Tchaikovsky’s masterful, almost symphonic score. I like my “Swan Lakes” to reflect that, and openings don’t come much darker than the funeral cortege of the prologue in this 1981 Peter Wright and Galina Samsova production. As the story moves on, Wright and Samsova also understand that while virtuosity is important, it loses everything without an accompanying poetry and delicacy.

That dark opening puts the whole ballet in context. It explains why the Prince’s 21st birthday party seems more like a wake, and why his mind seems to be everywhere but on dance in front of him. That conflict between celebration and mourning is equally reflected in Philip Prowse’s drenching of the castle in black, lilac and purple on one hand, and gold and silver on the other.

Siegfried is not usually danced with too much in the way of depth of character. There is all too often a tendency to overact in the role in a way that leads to superficiality, but a brooding César Morales gave a masterclass in how it should be done. In the opening scenes, a turn away, a blank stare into space and a tiny, yet dismissive gesture said so much.

Morales perked up when he met his Odette, and who wouldn’t. The petite Momoko Hirata was utterly beguiling. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a perfectly matched couple. There was an immediate, powerful and spontaneous connection.

Hirata’s Odette was soft and fragile. The Act II pas de deux was hauntingly beautiful. When she fell backwards into Siegfried’s arms it seemed to happen in super slow motion and with the lightness of one of her feathers. Morales caught her with such soft hands it was though he was handling the most delicate porcelain. One slip and she would be lost forever. Her expression was one of distance, as if she did not really know or understand why she had been condemned to suffering and unhappiness, or how to release herself from the prison in which she found herself.

There wasn’t much softness in Hirata’s Odile, though. Now she was full of life. Her dance was full of sharpness and attack as slowly but surely she reeled her prey in. Nothing fizzed and crackled as much as her series of fouettés that included two quadruple turns in amongst the usual singles and doubles; and all without the slightest wobble. Alongside her, Morales sparkled with his own series of turns and leaps, and lifts that made his swan seem almost weightless.

Hirata and Morales were backed up superbly by the rest of the company, which looked to be on top form. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone look so happy to be on stage as Chou Tze-chao. Ever-smiling, as Benno he made everything look effortless, almost matching Morales for lightness on his feet, with great height on his jumps and remarkably smooth transitions out of pirouettes to match. Along with Maureya Lebowitz and Laura Purkiss as the courtesans, he particularly shone in the Act I pas de trois. Top marks too for the swans that never seemed to be an inch out of place. Elsewhere, there was little sense of Valentin Olovyannikov’s Rothbart having much in the way of control over events, but there’s not too much room for that in this production anyway.

There have been many interpretations of “Swan Lake” over the years. Male swans, modern dress, different time periods…they have all been done. There have been versions without a lake, even at least one version without swans that instead used a single white feather as a metaphor. I like to see new takes on the old story, but it’s good to come home. And it’s especially good when a production and performance is as outstanding as this.

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