celine and tyrone

Tyrone Singleton as Prince Siegfried and Céline Gittens as Odette. Picture: Roy Smiljanic.

Swan Lake

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


One of the pleasures of reviewing a ballet company over the years is in watching dancers grow and develop in stature.

Trinidad born Céline Gittens arrived in 2006, aged 18, three years after Singleton, and the pair first danced last night’s roles, Céline in her debut as Odette/Odile, he as Prince Siegfried, as soloists (he a first soloist) in October 2012.

It was a new pairing which showed great promise, he a romantic, athletic, dashing lead with the look of a matinee idol, she an innocent, vulnerable figure with a hint of tragedy as the bewitched, doomed white swan Odette.

Seven years or so on and the pair are now principals and none of that early promise has been lost while much has been gained. We knew Gittens could do racy when she played the striptease artist in Slaughter on 10th Avenue to Robert Parker’s superb hoofer a decade ago and again four years later with Singleton now the tap dancer – she was sex on long, long legs.

Here she is a seductive Odile, the black swan, turning the head of the young prince with her siren’s song of dance, a tempting alternative to the poignant innocence of the fated Odette. The characters are the two sides of the same coin and Gittens spins them beautifully.

Odile is not the real baddy of the piece though, that honour falls to Baron von Rothbart (boo . . . hiss) danced with a touch of pantomime baddy about him by Jonathan Payn. He is an evil magician who has cast a spell on Odette making her a swan between dawn and midnight, a spell which can only be broken by someone who has never loved before swearing undying love for her.

The someone being Siegfried, of course, who is now king, one supposes, as we opened with his father’s solemn funeral party traversing the stage. His mother, now the Queen Mother (Eilis Small) is none too chuffed that her son follows that up with his 21st birthday bash organised by his best friend Benno, danced by an enthusiastic Tzu-Chao Chou.

The Prince's birthday present is a crossbow and so he and Benno set off on a midnight hunting expedition to the nearby lake where he runs across Odette, changing miraculously from swan to beautiful woman as he lines up his shot. Now, if  the Prince had arrived a few minutes earlier, this could have been a very short ballet, but instead we have a lovely pas de deux with Gittens flexing her arms like wings and an exquisite mournful violin solo from Royal Ballet Sinfonia leader Robert Gibbs. 

Singleton has that ability to make ballet look easy and natural and, almost unworldly, he is so light on his feet he never seems to make a sound when he lands or moves across the stage, while Gittens, who dances with precision and obvious technical ability, also dances with a pleasing flowing style, each step, each move like a brushstroke building up an elegant picture. It is a pairing which works well.

Affairs of state and all that though, and soon we are into a ball with mother having decided Siegfried needs a bride, so she has invited some eligible princesses along; there is Hungarian Princess Maureya , Polish Princess Yaoqian Shang and Italian Princess Beatrice Parma, who all gave us solos to state their case. It was a bit of a change for Lebowitz, now as the Hungarian Princess, who along with Miki Mizutani, had popped up earlier as courtesans dancing their way through Siegfried's birthday party. Makes a change from balloons and a cake, I suppose.

Meanwhile, Odette is still the front runner for Mrs Siegfried, until the evil Rothbart puts forward his daughter Odile as a contender, with the added attraction of making her look just like Odette – except she is in a black tutu, the black swan, rather in the mould of hat colours for goodies and baddies in the old westerns. 

Siegfried, with not a lot of experience of wicked magicians, or women for that matter, is well and truly duped and falls hook line and sinker, leaving Odette, and her spell, high and dry and waving forlornly outside the window. In that moment we know that somehow this isn’t going to end well as we head to the dramatic finale.

There are some fine performances throughout with what is almost a party piece in Swan Lake, albeit a very classy party, from the cygnets, Laura Day, Karla Doorbar, Miki Mizutani and Beatrice Parma, whose familiar Dance of the Cygnets, probably one of the best known in ballet, to an even more familiar tune, was a lovely display of precision and synchronisation.

And we have the entertainers organised for Siegfried’s blind date night by his best friend which gives us the Czárdás, a Hungarian dance starting slow and getting faster danced by Daria Stanciulescu and Kit Holder, a lively Polish Mazurka with eight of the company, a Neapolitan Dance involving Karla Doorbar, Rachele Pizzillo, Max Maslen and Lachlan Monaghan and finally a Spanish dance full of Latin zest and tambourines from Alys Shee, Mio Sumiyama, Tom Rogers and Alexander Yap.

We also get another lovely pas de deux between Siegfried and the seductive Odile who gives us perhaps the most difficult piece in the female ballet repertoire, the succession of fouetté turns, 32 in all – I gave up counting and just watched in awe. It is a whipped turn en pointe, on one leg, the other generating the propulsion for each turn, all done by Gittens without moving an inch off the spot. Cue rapturous applause.

It is enough to make a besotted Siegfried swear his love to the woman he believes is Odette . . . until the realisation of the deception dawns as he finally sees the real Odette outside the window and rushes off to find her as the curtain falls on Act III.

swans mist

The corps of swans rising slowly from the mist

That brings us to one of the loveliest openings to any act in the theatre repertoire as the curtain rises on the lake shore with a thick layer of mist flowing off the stage into the pit and suddenly the superb corps of swans appears as one, rising slowly out of the mist.

The corps, 18 in all, have their own scenes and some intricate, complex dances which are fascinating to watch with so many dancers involved. Their moment in the sun, or mist in this case, is quite beautiful and generated a round of applause which is a lasting tribute to choreographer Sir Peter Wright and designer Philip Prowse for their production which first saw light of day in 1981. A nod to Prowse's sumptuous sets and costumes here as well.

A mention too for Peter Teigen’s excellent lighting design which gives us atmosphere, moonlight and a realistic lightning storm in the final scene as Rothbart battles to stop Siegfried saving Odette from her fate.

The dramatic end gives us another, sad, pas de deux from the Prince and his swan in a bittersweet finale as Rothbart is defeated, his magic gone, swept away by an aggressive corps of swans, as Siegfried and Odette find eternal love, but alas, not in this world.

Tchaikovsky’s score is symphonic in character, with recurring themes, and as always becomes as much part of the performance as the dancing in the hands of the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia under principal conductor Paul Murphy. As well as Gibbs' virtuoso violin playing there are also notable oboe and harp solos which deserve a mention.

The ballet runs to 10 minutes shy of three hours, with one short and two longer intervals, but you would never notice as the time flies by. In pretty much every poll Swan Lake is rated the most popular ballet of all time, with another Tchaikovsky ballet, The Nutcracker, usually second. It is easy to see why. The familiar music stands on its own, the story is easy to follow with obvious goodies and baddies, and the choreography is superb. Everything you could want from a ballet. The swans will be on the lake in Birmingham to 29-02-20 and then on tour.

Roger Clarke

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