February 26, 2020
Of the three great Russian pre-revolutionary Imperial ballets, whether The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, or Swan Lake is debatably the greater, it is the last spectacle which seems to have carved the deepest niche in British ballet-goers’ hearts. Its metaphoric mystery links an unlikely folk tale of a girl who has been turned into a swan with a prince who falls in love with her. In other words, a posh version of everyday longing, but with feathers.
It’s not quite a knock-off of the plot but it is hard to escape similarities with Giselle in that both have transformed maidens and a prince. Musically too. Tchaikovsky was known to have admired Adam’s 1844 score for Giselle, and followed it in associating themes with particular characters. But all that really doesn’t matter for Swan Lake takes us to the land of make-believe where the miraculous and the strange allow for all manner of complications, easy metaphors for the powerful, and the inexplicable, meanderings of the heart.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s current version of this gold-standard ballet classic has an old-fashioned look and feel which perhaps equates well with the ballet’s age, especially in the royal celebrations of the second act with its darkly-lit fusty medieval court and costumes. Indeed, with this production too, now 39 years young.
The dancing also has a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, but again, this gives it a period appeal that somehow refers back to its nineteenth-century heritage. It has to be said that it is this fustian facet of most productions that explains exactly why Matthew Bourne simply had to create his all-male-swans version, but the really interesting thing is that both ballets continue to attract patrons regularly.
On the evening I was lucky enough to catch this heritage history lesson, Yasuo Atsuji was properly bemused and unawakened as the young Prince Siegfried encountering true love for the first time, while Jonathan Payne was a delightfully fiendish Baron von Rothbart. But it was Samara Downs who took the honours. She maybe hasn’t had as many opportunities in these big classic roles as some, but she was quite simply at the very top her most glittering form in the final act as Odette/Odile.
All told, a text-book production of this rich, spectacular brew of a ballet which had the audience at the finale shouting approbation.
Swan Lake runs at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 29th March. Visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com for details and tickets.