ENB’s My First Ballet: Swan Lake is Exceptional for the Young and Young At Heart

30/03/2018

Tchaikovsky, English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Swan Lake: Louise Calf (narrator), Dancers of the English National Ballet School, Peacock Theatre, London. 29.3.2018. (JPr)

English National Ballet School students in My First Ballet: Swan Lake © Laurent Liotardo

Production:

Choreography – Antonio Castilla (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov)
Music arrangement – Gavin Sutherland
Original set and costumes – Peter Farmer
Dramaturg – Lou Cope

Cast:

Odette – Chloe Keneally
Odile – Beatriz Kuperus
Prince Siegfried – Harvey Littlefield
Rothbart – Luigi Cifone
Queen – Vania de Rosas

Two days earlier I was in at Cineworld Basildon taking a psychoanalytical approach to The Royal Ballet’s current Bernstein Centenary mixed programme and now I was at the Peacock Theatre for my first experience of English National Ballet’s My First Ballet series. In the packed cinema auditorium in Essex – although in my seventh decade – I was still one of the youngest there and it was absolute delight to sit for My First Ballet: Swan Lake in a theatre where I was conspicuously one of the oldest.

Apart from clearly audible gasps of amazement at Peter Farmer’s wonderfully atmospheric sets and charming costumes from ENB’s current production of Swan Lake (that will return to the London Coliseum in January 2019), a huge theatre full of small children – girls and boys – was kept quiet and engrossed by this excellent version of one of the most popular of all ballets now aimed at a young audience. Since the creation of the My First Ballet series in 2012 it has apparently been seen by over 250,000 people and the current tour of seven venues lasting until 20 May will further swell those impressive numbers.

The idea of My First Ballet is to simplify the classic works into two manageable 30-minute halves and an on-stage narrator – the very personable Louise Calf – adds to the feeling that we are watching a magical fairy-tale pantomime where dance and mime has replaced the familiar jokes, innuendo, pratfalls and songs. For more grown-up ballet fans, she provided – along with a handy guide in the programme – a refresher course on what all the gesticulating means. I am very pleased to say what a splendid introduction to ballet this was and any ‘dumbing down’ showed great respect both for the artform itself and the new audiences English National Ballet want to introduce to their shows. I was absolutely engrossed and much preferred this to the Bernstein Centenary evening, though what that says about me I cannot be too sure?

Louise Calf began by saying: ‘Hello my name is Odile … I want to tell you a story that has been passed through my family for generations and generations. It is about something that happened to my Great-Great-Great-Great-Great Grandmother whose name was also Odile and her best friend Odette. It is a story about magic, friendship and love. So are you sitting comfortably then I’ll begin.’ And ended – after the wizard Rothbart had been forgiven by Prince Siegfried and his sister Odile for turning her friend Odette into a swan because she spurned Rothbart – with ‘It is only light that can drive away darkness and hate can be conquered by friendship, forgiveness and love.’  In between – thanks to Lou Cope’s dramaturgy, Antonio Castilla’s modified choreography and Gavin Sutherland’s arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s recorded score – we essentially were given the CliffsNotes version of Swan Lake now with the happiest of redemptive endings.

Senior members of the ENB School take all the dancing roles and were exemplary on this opening night and their talent and potential radiated from the stage. I wish them all well for the future in what is an overcrowded profession. It would be invidious to make special mention of any particular dancer, so I commend in their entirety all involved led by Chloe Keneally (Odette), Beatriz Kuperus (Odile), Harvey Littlefield (Prince Siegfried) and Luigi Cifone (Rothbart). I urge all those young and young at heart not to miss this version of Swan Lake and do look out especially for the remarkable precision and coordination of the eight Swans, the cheeky Italian Dance and the overall ability of these exceptional young dancers to ‘feel’ the music and not just do a series of meaningless steps.

Jim Pritchard

For more about My First Ballet: Swan Lake click here.

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