It was Friday… opening night had arrived.
All of the classes and rehearsals from Swan Lake Week had led to this. But actually? Swan Lake Week was just the final stretch; the preparations for this ballet began many years ago.
This production of the ballet, by Peter Wright and Galina Samsova, was created in 1981 for the Sadler Well’s Royal Ballet (which then became the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 1990 when the company moved to Birmingham). The choreography is a blend of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s work (from the 1890’s) and choreography by Peter Wright (who was the Director of Sadler Well’s Royal Ballet at the time). The music is the classic score composed by Tchaikovsky in the late 1870’s.
I was delighted when I discovered that Friday also happened to be Tchaikovsky’s birthday.
So this opening night performance of the Birmingham Royal Ballet was a combination of efforts, some of which began long ago. And here is the result: the Friday night performance of Swan Lake, the tragic love story of Prince Siegfried and the Swan Princess, Odette.
The show began in near darkness. A single light cast eerie shadows on the funeral procession for the King as they slowly made their way across the stage. This short but stirring opening certainly established the dark undertone to this ballet.
Act I was the 21st birthday celebration of Prince Siegfried (Iain Mackay). The set consisted of six enormous stone columns around the perimeter of the stage. Steps leading to a balcony ran along the back, with a stunning scene of the night sky draped behind.
Benno (Mathias Dingman), the Prince’s best friend, encouraged the resistant Prince to join in the festivities. Four couples presented a beautiful waltz, performing every turn, piqué, and pirouette exactly together. The Pas de Trois between Benno (Mathias Dingman) and the two courtesans (Natasha Oughtred and Momoko Hirata) was lively and joyful. Dingman performed soaring grand jétés and double tours. Oughtred and Hirata’s individual variations were vibrant and animated; both dancers turned, jumped, and hopped on pointe with ease.
Mackay’s emotional expression and technique were fantastic; he performed both slow melancholy variations with sustained balances and amazing attitude turns, as well as dynamic and cheerful jumping combinations with the Pas de Trois.
The Queen (Ballet Mistress Marion Tait) arrived, upset to see such a celebration when the court was mourning the King’s death (the audience giggled a little when the Queen found the wine they had sheepishly tried to hide from her). The Queen then informed the Prince that he would be selecting a bride from the three princesses that would be arriving the next day (the Prince was less than thrilled by this). The Queen departed, and after the celebration was over, the Prince saw swans pass by (with the famous haunting melody playing as he watched). He and Benno decided to follow them, bringing along the Prince’s new crossbow.
The set had been modified so that the six columns had become trees; the stairs remained, but the backdrop had changed a beautiful scene of moonlight on water. The soft lighting added a romantic yet sinister feel to the stage.
We were soon introduced to Baron von Rothbart (Jonathan Payn), Odette (Nao Sakuma), and the swans. Odette explained to the Prince that she was a really a princess trapped in von Rothbart’s spell. She was only able take human form at night, and the spell could only be broken by someone’s first love, sworn to her for eternity. If von Rothbart was killed, or if the oath of love were broken, she would forever remain a swan.
The pas de deux between Mackay and Sakuma was gentle and simply gorgeous; they danced together seamlessly, without any hesitation or hint of a wobble. Mackay tossed Sakuma in the air, lifting her effortlessly. Sakuma captured the sorrowful emotion of the Swan Princess wonderfully; her dancing was brilliant. Her turns, balance, and extensions were incredible (good gracious, that arabesque!). Her bright white tutu sparkled in the stage lights. Sakuma’s port de bras was especially remarkable; fluid isn’t strong enough of a word to describe it. Her arms seemed to melt from position to position. I’d never seen anything like it.
The act continued with the dancing of the swans (who were also under von Rothbart’s spell); the 16 dancers in the corps de ballet moved through their formations smoothly, led by the Two Swans (also known as the “big swans”). Their costumes were a softer white, with tutus that floated as they moved. They danced in wonderful unison, matching their positions and port de bras throughout. One of my favorite parts has always been the Cygnets (“Four Swans”); this variation requires the four ladies to hold hands in such a way that they dance only inches apart. The dancers performed this sprightly combination very well; they flew through their échappés, passés, and pas de chats with near perfection.
The Prince then swore his eternal love to Odette, but dawn arrived, and the swans had to depart. After Odette said goodbye to the Prince, she turned her back to the audience, rising to sousu. Her posture changed, stiffening, and she bourréd off stage, back under the spell, her arms softly floating; this gave me chills.
Back at the castle, a reception was held for the Prince, with princesses and their courts arriving from different countries.
Two huge red thrones were added between the columns on each side of the stage, three mammoth candelabras hung from the ceiling, and the stairs were extended so that they curved up and behind one of the columns at the back of the stage.
The court dances and the national dances were strong and energetic, showcasing the company’s skill in different styles of character dance. The costumes were rich layers of fabrics, in reds, blacks, and golds, and the headpieces were amazing.
The three princesses (Hungarian, Polish, and Italian) performed their variations solidly; the dancers handled their tricky choreography without difficulty. Carol-Anne Millar’s performance (the Polish princess) shone with her radiant expression, and high springy jumps.
Unexpected guests, the Spanish, then arrived at the reception. This group included von Rothbart (not dressed in his evil magician’s attire) and his daughter Odile (whose appearance had been changed to look like Odette).
The Spanish Dance was sharp and intense; it was great to see it performed after learning a version of it in the Master Class. The costumes were a rich black, with layers and layers of fabric and lace.
Nao Sakuma’s transformation from the mournful and fragile Odette to the bold and cunning Odile was spectacular. It went much further than the change into the shining black tutu. Gone were the gentle and melting movements; she was more forceful and aggressive in the beginning of her pas de deux with the Prince. Her expression was saucy. Later in the pas de deux, von Rothbart signaled to Odile, who then exaggerated the frail, tender expressions of Odette for the Prince, but gave her father sly, devious smiles when the Prince wasn’t looking. Sakuma’s ability to go back and forth between the characters was fantastic.
The Prince and Odile’s variations were powerful and exciting. Sakuma blazed through her 32 counts of high-speed fouettés (throwing in a few doubles as well); she pulled into her last turn, landed in fifth position, and ended in a smooth soutenu. Mackay performed his series of à la seconde turns flawlessly and with wonderful control. The pas ended to thunderous applause.
The Prince, believing Odile to be Odette, swore his love to her, and chose her to be his bride. The Prince did not see Odette (played by another dancer for the moment) high in the window above the stairs, frantically trying to get his attention. After his oath of love was given to Odile, von Rothbart and Odile pointed to the window, mocking him. Distraught, the Prince raced out of the castle after Odette. Von Rothbart and Odile followed him, setting off explosions as they went.
Back at the lake, the swans tried to comfort the distressed Odette, who proclaimed her wish to die. Despite von Rothbart’s attempt to stop the Prince with a storm (the lightning effects for this were terrific), he found Odette, and they danced together, with slow movements and emotional embraces. Odette had forgiven the Prince, but she was doomed to be a swan forever.
Suddenly, Odette rushed to the front of the stage, mimed the symbol for death, then ran full speed to the back of the stage, up the stairs, and dove off the top step behind the tree (into the lake). I literally exclaimed “Oh my!” I was completely stunned; I knew the story, and was prepared for Odette to drown herself, but this happened so abruptly. It was certainly dramatic, but I suppose I was expecting more of a drawn out, heart-wrenching scene.
After Odette jumped, the Prince was overwrought, wanting to follow her. Baron von Rothbart attempted to stop him, which led to a struggle. The Prince pulled off von Rothbart’s headpiece/mask, and flung it offstage (for a moment I was unsure if this was choreographed or if it accidentally came off, forcing them to improvise). The Prince then raced up the stairs and dove into the lake, leaving von Rothbart shaken.
The swans sent the weakened von Rothbart away. Benno arrived, in search of the Prince. After the swans directed him, Benno hurried to the water. He returned carrying the Prince’s body (with the Prince’s face covered). Benno walked toward the audience, racked with sadness, and framed by the swans. The Prince and Odette, embracing, appeared high in the sky; their love united in death. The final scene was intense, simultaneously steeped in sorrow and joy.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s presentation of this stirring ballet was sensational; the company is world-class, and they excel on every level. Everything had woven together to become one magnificent show: the dancers’ impeccable technique; their artistic expression; the grand sets; the luxurious costumes; the spectacular lighting; the tragic story; and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra’s terrific performance of Tchaikovsky’s score.
Swan Lake Week Parts One and Two were about introductions and connections; this is the culmination. The preparations during Swan Lake Week, all the prior rehearsals in Birmingham, and the planning from years ago had led up to this opening night performance. The company’s time, efforts, and talents were brought here, to be shared with us. To the Birmingham Royal Ballet … thank you, thank you, thank you.
The company also performed shows at Chrysler Hall Saturday and Sunday, with different company members performing the lead roles in each show. The BRB will continue their tour back in the UK.
This article was originally published on AltDaily in May of 2010.