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Swan Lake, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Swan Lake, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells

Swan Lake, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells

A gorgeous production lovingly performed shows Tchaikovsky's classic at its best

Splendid tragedy: there's no bastardised happy ending in Peter Wright's excellent 'Swan Lake' for Birmingham Royal Ballet© Bill Cooper

Swan Lakes are not created equal. In fact they are not even created the same: ballet is the art form with the evanescent repertoire, in which First Folios – or any folios – are singularly scarce. Even with a classic as beloved as Swan Lake, there is no stable text apart from Ivanov's lakeside choreography for Act II and Tchaikovsky's score (though not even all of that).

If a production shines in any other respects as well as these, the credit is due to the creative team and the company – so let's bring the house down for Birmingham Royal Ballet and the utterly splendid rendition they gave of Peter Wright and Galina Samsova's 1981 Swan Lake at Sadler's Wells last night.

Wright, a master ballet director who has provided BRB with several excellent productions, brings his trademark emotional intelligence to the story, at every step striving to keep the main characters and their motivations in focus. Particularly in Act I, judicious rearrangement of the action helps to reveal the prince's character during the social dances, making the latter in turn feel like an integral part of the story rather than merely incidental ornament. There is no buffoonery with an old tutor or jester, but instead a clearer role for the young friend who, in being a foil for the main man, can reflect and clarify the latter's actions. William Bracewell, fresh-faced and long-limbed, played the part beautifully; he's got the jumps and the charisma to play the prince himself, once he sorts out the partnering issues that marred an otherwise engaging pas de trois.

Tyrone Singleton as Prince Siegfried and Céline Gittens as Odette in Swan Lake. Photo by Roy Smiljanic.This pas de trois is unusual in having a melancholy solo à la Nureyev for the prince right in the middle of it, but it's a change that works, giving us a glimpse into the prince's mind much earlier than the solo does in its conventional placement at the end of the act. Tyrone Singleton handled this gradual psychological unveiling with the same tools he brought to his whole performance last night: deep feeling, and fresh, pliant dancing. By the end of the first Act, I cared sincerely for this lovely, worried prince and for his fate.

Céline Gittens as Odette was equally engaging; her shy swan's gradual blossoming from fear into hope and love was heart-in-mouth stuff, so perfectly synchronised to the exquisite steps of Ivanov's pas de deux that every movement seemed just as inevitable emotionally as it did artistically. The magic being woven by Gittens and Singleton made the prospect of Act III heartbreaking to contemplate – isn't tragedy delicious when it's done well? – but the black swan scenes were just as pleasurable to watch; again Gittens made every step tell the story, again Singleton responded and again hearts rose into mouths as we watched him being seduced by the mysterious stranger. His horror when he realised his mistake felt all too real, as did his remorse in Act IV, and he crowned it all with an absolutely beautiful leap into the lake after Odette.

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Philip Prowse's splendid costumes for Swan LakeA performance like this is not made by principals alone; every single element showed evidence of great care and dedication. Koen Kessels, in charge of the house band he has conducted for five years, demonstrated why he now heads up the Royal Ballet's orchestra as well, shaping the score with a thrilling feel for its drama that made the whole thing sound not just fresh but exciting, and delighting our ears with phrasing, tempo, depth, and vibrancy of sound. The corps de ballet shone with professionalism: hard rehearsal had borne fruit in beautifully precise steps and musical phrasing, but also in feeling – the dancers of the Spanish variation in Act III infused it with a sinister sexiness fitting to the retinue of the evil Rothbart; the massed swans at the end of Act IV vibrated with mute tragedy as they pointed towards the waters which had swallowed Odette and Siegfried.

Philip Prowse's lush designs (pictured above left) are a cornucopia of delights in velvet and shimmering blacks, golds and silvers, thrilling and exotic enough to make you temporarily forget you're sitting in London watching a company from Birmingham, rather than in some medieval Central European court. Credit to the costume department, too; these complicated fineries are in mint condition.

Love and faithfulness are what Swan Lake is all about, and the team at BRB have succeeded in infusing their production with both those qualities. Love shines out of the dancing and the acting, which work in unison to tell the story; love shines out of the playing and conducting, which make the story sing. The result is faithfulness to a vision of what ballet can be at its best: a union of form, music, story and style which is not handicapped by its lack of words – no mute play, no dumb opera – but a gloriously simple arc of narrative and beauty. What a joy to be a child in the Midlands and see this as your first Swan Lake or even first ballet; you would always know what it ought to be like. For the rest of us, it's a joy to be reminded just how good Swan Lake can be.

  • Birmingham Royal Ballet's Swan Lake is at Sadler's Wells until 15 October, then touring to Sunderland, Plymouth, Befast, Cardiff and Southampton. BRB perform a second programme at Sadler's Wells on 16 and 17 October.

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