I’ve always liked the BRB Swan Lake for the seamless way it canters along – no surprise that Peter Wright had a good hand in it (his productions of Nutcracker and Giselle are classical benchmarks) – while a lot of Swan Lakes have me thinking how long they are, with too much infill. The Royal Ballet production seems draggingly longer and it comes as a genuine shock to realise that the BRB production actually has more dancing minutes in it (though coupled to shorter intervals) – it’s just that Wright and Samsova (his co-producer) waft you along and the story seems more interwoven. Starting with the King’s funeral sets the 4-act story in perfect and difficult context.
Anyway I’d never dream of missing a BRB Lac and usually get up to Birmingham for a matinee – and this time luckily to see Celine Gittens debut as Odette/Odile. There was a lot of hubbub around the performance – is she the first non-white Swan Lake lead? – and also the whole subject of ballet and racism then comes up. I tend to the Luke Jennings view (in a fine piece for the Observer), that companies are not cesspits of racism. And many non-white dancers have danced the lead in Swan Lake, but if the performance needed a badge then it was probably the first Swan Lake in the UK performed by a mixed race couple. Tyrone Singleton was her Prince Siegfried and, like Gittens, has been noticed since fresh from School (RB School performances in his case and winning Gold at the 2005 Adeline Genee in hers). The ‘real’ news was that one of the great classical ballets was being performed by 2 soloist dancers of great promise (he a first soloist) and in a new pairing. Nothing to do with black, non-white, mixed-race or whatever and everything to do with the art and unfolding creativity.
I saw Singleton’s debut as Siegfried 4½ years ago in Oxford and wrote at the time: “Soft and fluid movement, high jumps, silent and nearly effortless, gracious, engaging, supportive.” to which I’d add that he can really act the part and has a Daniel Craig 007 all-knowing but world-weary demeanour – a prince, in part haunted by all that is thrust upon him. In manner he reminds me of Jonathan Cope – a powerful presence on stage but not consciously drawing attention to himself.
Odette/Odile is one of the biggest and most difficult of ballerina roles, and Celine Gittens was clearly a little nervous at the start as Odette in act 2. The steps were diligently done and her long arms and carriage show wonderful expressive potential. But as Odile in the ballroom she literally found her feet and commanded the stage technically and with amazingly sexy fizz. She’s a fine actress too and I really like the calculating interplays with her father (Rothbart) and their playing out on a bewitched Siegfried. Singleton may be like 007 and have seen it all but he didn’t see this exotic creature coming, that’s for sure. Feet found, the final act 4 lakeside scenes were emotional rather than worrying affairs – this was principal level dancing.
There was one other revelation in my Birmingham trip – the wonderfulness of the designs. These last few years I’ve usually commented that the only thing wrong with the production was the heavy old and dusty designs, the work of Philip Prowse way back for the premiere in 1981. I’m told that all that has changed is the lakeside tutus, but everywhere I saw richer, fresher costumes and can only conclude that they’ve been through an extra deep clean and retexturing. And/or perhaps the lighting has been tweaked? Anyway the quibble has gone and I declare the BRB Swan Lake, like their Nutcracker, the best in the land.