I’m going to say this straight out: of all the productions of Swan Lake I’ve seen, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s is my favourite. That puts them above English National Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi. Here’s why.
The curtain at The Lowry rises on a striking tableau of a funeral scene, which would take any audience member used to a “traditional” telling by surprise. It’s astonishingly effective – the dark, gothic visuals complement Tchaikovsky’s swelling, dramatic introduction perfectly – and an excellent starting point for the story. The funeral is for Siegfried’s father, the king, which gives a valid reason for the young prince to marry and for the queen to be keeping a close eye on him.
So the party in Act I isn’t a straightforward 21st birthday celebration – Siegfried and the court are still in mourning, and the queen (a wonderfully imperious Marion Tait) is not best pleased to discover them drinking and dancing. The waltz is gorgeous – it’s comprised of just four couples, meaning that there is a lot more space for interesting, dynamic choreography than in versions that use the whole corps de ballet. In a powerful, energetic goblet dance, Siegfried and his friends joined by male courtiers in beautiful long-sleeved coats. The decision to restrict this section to male dancers makes sense in terms of story – drinking being more of a male pastime historically – and on a practical level allows the female corps to prepare for their Act II appearance as swans. Two courtesans are brought on in an attempt to distract Siegfried, forming the pas de trois with his friend Benno – another clever addition that justifies this particular dance within the narrative.
It’s unfortunate that Mathias Dingman, who dances Benno, rather overshadows his prince (danced by Joseph Caley.) Dingman is handsome, charismatic and powerful – in one of his beaten jumps, the sound of his calves knocking together was audible in the Upper Circle – whereas Caley is small, slender and at times inconspicuous.
On to Act II. Whilst the corps of swans may not be as perfectly synchronised as their Royal or English National counterparts, the BRB set is infinitely better. Mainly because it actually has a lake in. When the curtain rose on the ragged, sinister figure of Rothbart silhouetted against the silvery, shimmering lake, it actually took my breath away. But not as much as Momoko Hirata, who has to one of the best Odettes I have ever seen – utterly weightless, as if she were made of feathers, with exquisite fluidity in the movement of her arms and hands. I can’t remember ever being so drawn into Act II as I was watching her.
Act III is a rich, red and gold coloured foil to its soft white counterpart – groups of dancers in resplendent costumes form entourages for princesses who have been invited as prospective suitors for Siegfried. Once again, these traditional national dances are worked into the story far more logically than in other productions. My only complaint is that the princesses themselves – who dance brief, pretty solos – are in identical tutus, so it’s hard to know which one is which! The music for the final national dance – the Spanish Dance – is reserved for Rothbart and Odile’s entourage, who win the prize for Best Costume with their feathered black hats.
Hirata’s Black Swan is every bit as captivating as her White – the perfectly executed pas de deux gets a huge round of applause from the Lowry audience, as well it should. Hirata imitates Odette’s movements in the adagio with a hint of eye-rolling mockery, whilst her fouettés are like bolts of black lightning. (I was too transfixed to count them.)
Curtain up on Act IV reveals the swans immersed in a sea of dry ice, a spectacular effect that garners yet another gasp. In the dramatic climax, Rothbart’s headdress is torn off in a struggle with Siegfried and he is left lying on the ground, a vengeful flock of swans staring him down like the Wilis in Giselle. Odette and Siegfried’s deaths are slightly more effective in this production – they still throw themselves off the back of the stage into the ‘lake,’ but in more of a graceful swan dive than a feet first jump. And although there is no way that Benno could have dragged his friend’s lifeless body up from the lake bed, it is poignant to see Swan Lake come full circle. Behind this scene of death however, there is the image of the two lovers united at last.