United Kingdom Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Paul Murphy (Conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 28.9.2015. (GR)
Odette/Odile: Céline Gittins
Prince Siegfried: Tyrone Singleton
Benno, his equerry/friend: William Bracewell
Baron von Rothbart: Jonathan Payn
Hungarian Princess: Elisha Willis
Polish Princess: Samara Downs
Italian Princess: Miki Mizutani
Combined Choreography: Peter Wright/Lev Ivanov/Marius Petipa
Designs: Philip Prowse
Lighting: Peter Teigen
Birmingham Royal Ballet have much to celebrate as they begin their 2015/16 season – the 25th anniversary at their Birmingham home. And what better offering to present to their loyal West Midlands fan base than one of their most enduring and ever popular favourites, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The performance on Sept 28th 2015 at Birmingham Hippodrome is up to BRB’s highest of standards. Although the Peter Wright version of the long standing choreography of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa dates from 1981, it still effervesces, electrifies and emotes.
Paul Murphy and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia open proceedings with the Introduction; the woodwind in fine form leading up to a stirring Allegro ma non troppo. Here the curtain rises to a funeral cortege for Prince Siegfried’s father, a neat link between music and narrative. But in the Act I courtyard scene the body language of Tyrone Singleton as the Prince shows he is not yet prepared to take on his royal responsibilities, his mood split between the happy-go-lucky antics of his companions (Samara downs, Yvette Knight, Delia Matthews, Yijing Zhang, Yasuo Atsuji, Jonathan Caguioa, Fergus Campbell and Brandon Lawrence) and his 21st birthday present from them – a state-of-the-art crossbow. Along with the splendid designs of Philip Prowse, equerry and friend Benno provide an extravaganza for Siegfried. But Marion Tait as the Queen Mother enters to remind her son that court is still in mourning and he needs to take a wife, noblesse oblige, calling upon three ancient tomes to make her point. Benno’s programme however continues, and together with courtesans Angela Paul and Ruth Brill, William Bracewell presents a delightful Pas de trois, a sequence in which Singleton ultimately joins, his athleticism demonstrating what a good catch he is. Having toasted their sovereign the boys decide to go hunting, Siegfried itching to try out his new weapon. After spying a flock of swans, a change of mood is signalled by the haunting oboe of Alaster Bentley, thereby introducing the gorgeous Andante theme of the swans and bring Act I to a close.
What makes ballet such an enjoyable art form is the fusion of music and movement of which Swan Lake can be the perfect example: the combination of Tchaikovsky’s magical score and the traditional choreography of Ivanov, Petipa and Wright make it a classic combination. Add the Corps of BRB and the mix becomes irresistible. It is hard to believe that such an evil character as Baron von Rothbart could conjure up such a heavenly vision as the BRB sixteen-strong flock of swans. Led on occasions by Yvette Knight and Yijing Zhang, they harmonise delightfully, far too pleasing on the eye to be on the end of any huntsman’s bolt! And so catching sight of Céline Gittins as Odette, Siegfried freezes. The plight of Odette is spelt out by some graphic hand and head gesticulations from Gittins, while her whole body oozes grace and charm, making it obvious why she and Singleton are such idyllic partners; the wafting of her arms made me suppose she might take flight at any moment. Solos from the cello of James Potter and the violin of Sinfonia leader Robert Gibbs, plus their subsequent duet, made it all so enchanting! The cygnets of Arancha Baselga, Karla Doorbar, Miki Mizutani and Emily Smith remain in unison whether on the spot or traversing the stage, no mean feat. But the romantic love Siegfried seeks is never going to run smooth….
No Tchaikovsky ballet would be complete without its own series of divertissements and Act III shows the form to maximum advantage; whatever the rhythm required by the dance Murphy provides it. The costumes of Prowse again come into their own, another example of the ballet wearing well. Although the princesses of Elisha Willis, Samara Downs and Miki Mizutani (why still only a First Artist?) dance enticingly, none of the three make an impression on the Prince, dreaming in the wings of his Odette. The group dances (Czárdás, Mazurka, Neopolitan and Spanish) are all exhilarating too, with the tambourine slapping of Yvette Knight, Yijing Zhang, Brandon Lawrence and Tom Rogers outstanding. It sets the scene for the return of the sorcerer von Rothbart; now accompanied by his daughter Odile, she is disguised as Odette but appropriately in black attire. Although their two characters as danced by Gittins are much changed – modesty replaced by aggression, tenderness by promiscuity – Singleton is blinded by love and following Gittins’ invigorating coda with its multiple fouettés, he tells mother that this is the girl for him; too late he catches sight of his true love Odette at the window.
The peacefulness of the early morning mist by the lake that opens Act IV (accentuated by a watery harp) is interrupted by the Baron’s storm, vividly materialised by Peter Tiegen’s lighting. Meant to deter Siegfried, our hero nevertheless gets to Odette, leading to their reconciliation. Several endings have been proffered for Swan Lake, both tragic and romantic; Wright opts for the romantic as von Rothbart is defeated and the lovers united in a world of eternal love. No doubt those Bambi-eyes of the twenty-seven year old Trinidadian-born ballerina Gittins will continue to entrance many more Siegfrieds in the years to come, just as she did to this particular Hippodrome audience.