firs steps 

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

BOYS have always wanted to play for their country at football, cricket and rugby, be fighter pilots or astronauts as well as follow the age old pursuits of making a nuisance of themselves with frogs, building dens, exploring and generally keeping alive the spirit of Just William. Little girls want to be princesses and ballet dancers.

Little has changed except these days it is cool for boys to want to dance as well. It is not just down to Billy Elliot, coming to the Hippodrome in March 2106 incidentally, but through sporting and TV stars appearing on Strictly, through break dancing, groups such as Diversity and rapid growth in street dancing.

Thus when Birmingham Royal Ballet performed First Steps, a child’s Swan Lake, the majority of children in the audience might still have been little girls, including one in front of me who was asking more questions than Jeremy Paxman on speed – she wanted to know and to understand everything, which was brilliant – but there were more boys than would have been seen even a decade ago.

Marion Tait, BRB’s assistant director did not devise this children’s edition as a performance to be appreciated in silence with applause at the end though, this is an introduction, an exercise to provide a taste and an understanding of the world of ballet, one of the truly international theatrical art forms.

And children are curious, inquisitive even demandiSamara Downsng in their thirst for knowledge and the more they see and learn, the more they ask, the more they will appreciate not only the beauty but also the complexity of ballet, in this case through one of its best known examples in Tchaikovsky’s showstopper.

Their guide was storyteller Owen Young who set the scene and explained some of the stylised mime of ballet, complete with audience participation, to express happiness, sadness, joy and anger and even a boys v girls contest – dragging up dads and grandfathers, mums and grans, to mime the parts of Prince Siegfried and Odette when they first meet.

Samara Downs who danced the parts of Odette and Odile

Siegfried danced by Jamie Bond and Odette danced by Samara Downs first tell the children what they are saying  along with the mime, then just the mime and then the boys and girls in turn try the words and mime then mime alone for themselves.

Having given a brief outline of the story we hear some of the music and particularly the opening haunting theme and its oboe solo and then the reappearance of the theme, more urgent and threatening later in the ballet from a full 60-strong Royal Ballet Sinfonia under conductor Johnathan Lo. We also see the dance of the cygnets, beautifully danced, front of curtain, by Ruth Brill, Laura Day, Kara Doorbar and Beatrice Parma showing not only ballerinas to delight little girls but immaculate precision.

Then it is on to Act III and the costume ball at the palace where the Hungarian, Polish and Italian princesses arrive with their dancing entourage hoping to snare Prince Siegfried. And it is here we meet the evil magician Baron von Rothbart danced by Yasuo Atsuji and his daughter Odile, the black swan disguised as Odette, danced again by Samara.

The dances are kept short and with the splendidly lavish ballroom scene over it is back to our storyteller to explain how the evil Baron is defeated and Siegfried and Odette reappear to live happily ever after – which is, should we say, a happier ending than Peter Wright’s normal BRB production.

As an exercise to introduce ballet to youngsters, boys as well as girls, it is a wonderful idea, providing leading dancers and a full symphony orchestra and a shortened ballet all at a price much lower than many a touring stage version of a children’s TV show – and you even got a free programme.

The queue to meet the dancers afterwards was testament to its success - although with all the oohs and aahs and looks of wide-eyed awe whenever Odette appeared perhaps a few more swans in a lakeside scene, even rising from the mist, might have gone down well. After all the swans en pointe in white tutus are the ballerinas of every little girl’s dreams and . . . dreams are made of shows like this.

Roger Clarke



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