It has long been said that this production of Swan Lake, (created originally by Peter Wright and the former ballerina Galina Samsova in 1981 for Birmingham Royal Ballet, at that time Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet) is world class and the current revival at Birmingham Hippodrome completely justifies this claim.
Everything is set perfectly in its rightful place, and Peter Wright’s genius illuminates all the areas through which this ballet must move successfully if it is to captivate the audience.
Wright was always aware that Tchaikovsky’s intention was not to create a fairy story. This is not, for instance, the land of the Lilac Fairy, Puss In Boots or The Bluebird. Swan Lake begins with a shadowy funeral cortege, a king is dead and a young prince must take over the affairs of a sorrowing kingdom, Tchaikovsky’s music sings of dark forests, mysterious castles fading away into autumnal dreams across moonlit lakes, its mood is a continual echo of forgotten legends of enchanted women forced to lead half-lives as nocturnal swans, thus it is a classic Romantic piece, where the atmosphere is both sombre and richly colourful at the same time.
The success of any production of Swan Lake depends on how well all these strands of the story are brought together, and in a truly wonderful way Peter Wright has used both understanding and imagination to bring off a masterpiece of dance and design.
The company dancing at all parts of this magnificent evening suggest that Birmingham Royal Ballet is currently touching a high point of achievement. The mourning colours of the opening scene echo an underlying current of despair. The Prince must marry in order to ensure the succession. But there is reluctance. The courtiers in colours of lilac, purple, black, silver and grey do their best to cheer up Prince Siegfried, (Chi Cao)but to little avail.
Chi Cao’s performance is consistently superb. The neat black suit, the dismissive hands used to indicate disillusion, are all pointers towards Siegfried’s oscillations between despair and elation. No smiles come and go across this pale, melancholy face, and the only moment he begins to unburden himself is of unhappiness is when the swan queen (the exquisitely lovely Nao Sakuma) appears in the white act. For a time she is Odette, later to metamorphose into the cruel Odile.
The moment when the lost and lonely pair of lovers, he human, she only half so, begin their love duet, echoed by a solo violin and a cello, is probably one of the most haunting moments in all ballet, (and how sensitively Robert Gibbs brought off the solo violin!). Here you hold your breath along with a mesmerised sell-out house, who cheered an unforgettable moment.
You feel continually for Chi Cao’s dilemma as the pageantry of the second act begins. Wright has observed all the courtesies of a huge and wealthy court. Marion Tait’s Queen Mother is still in charge and accepts the prince’s melancholia, but presses him to take a bride. Tait looks magnificent in these late years of a wonderful career.
Her mime is perfect and her sense of regality is profound. It prepares us for the tragedy that is waiting to happen. The Hungarian, Polish and Italian ambassadors present their princesses and the evening mounts in excitement. Then Sakuma appears as the shape shifting Odile and the dance fireworks begin. She has a set of spins across stage which show up any dancer’s technique with deadly clarity, and it is the same for Chi Cao. Both dancers finished on a roar of approval.
Afterwards the tragedy takes its final shape, and you feel the Queen Mother’s hopes of a settled marriage crumbling round her since her son has been tricked into the wrong marriage, while Odette’s despair, at the seemingly eternal power of the magician Von Rothbart, leads to a suicide in the moonlit lake.
These last moments were held perfectly by the principals, (excellent character work from Jonathan Payn as the wicked Von Rothbart lumbered with a badly-wrinkled skin cap) although a touch of unswanlike lack of synchronisation left some of the younger swans looking vulnerable for all the wrong reasons. And a sharp rap, but deserved on the knuckles here for the forgetful stage crew who left a large block of disconnected scenery showing in the wings for the final act, where it should have been masked.
I doubt there was a dry eye in the house when the drowned body of this tragic prince, compromised by an unbearable burden, was finally carried downstage by his faithful young friend Benno ( fine work from Mathias Dingman - a dancer to watch), while a slow curtain used the Hippo’s fine amethyst tabs to hold the sombre mood perfection.
Running time 3 hours - until Saturday