Nao shines as swans sparkle

Swans rising through the mist: The stunning opening to the final act with a waterfall of dry ice cascading from the stage.

Swan Lake

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


NAO Sakuma was at her stunning best as Odette on the opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet's Swan Lake.

When she is on form she glides and soars around the stage with balance and precision that is awesome. She has quick feet, stunning pointe work and in her fouetté turns in the Black Swan pas de deux she moved not an inch.

If she has a fault it is perhaps in her acting. She is perfect as Odette, the tragic Swan Princess who is well and truly doomed from the off. Nao can do sad and tragic heroine with aplomb.

But her Odile, the daughter of the evil genius Baron von Rothbart, does rather seem to be merely her white swan back on stage in a black dress - there is not a lot of sex and seduction on show.

That being said when she is as technically good as last night you can forgive her almost anything.

Nao Sakuma as Odette dances towards her tragic end surrounded by swans

This was the cast who had successfully toured the USA earlier this year with Iain Mackay as Siegfried and with his height and power Odette certainly knew how high swans could fly with some of the lifts.

 Mackay did not have it all his own way among the man though and it was debateable who was leaping highest and longest between his Prince and Alexander Campbell as Benno.

Both were exceptional and Campbell's solo in Act One drew deserved prolonged applause.

The ballet was first performed in 1895 and has gone on to be one of the most performed and most loved of all ballets helped in no small part by Tchaikovsky's lyrical, symphonic score which provides music that is widely loved and known by people who have never even seen a ballet.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under Philip Ellis, gave the score full life adding to the enjoyment of the performance.

I do wonder though if they run a sweep on how long it takes audiences to actually shut up between acts one and two when there is a three minute interval while the set is changed from a courtyard to a moonlit lake.

The audience, sitting in the gloom, quite naturally turn to conversation to fill the time but when act two actually starts - the orchestra playing an overture is a bit of a clue - instead of a return to silence it seems many people see that as a signal to talk even louder to drown out the music. Even when the curtain went up you could still hear conversations tailing off.

Meanwhile back at the ballet it did seem a little slow to get into its stride. There was nothing to put your finger on. It had pace, colour, movement, lively dancing but somehow the spark was missing from the sumptuous opening of silks and brocade.

The arrival of the cygnets in act two gave a lift and by the ball scene in act three the show was flying as Siegfried pledges his love and his hand in marriage to Odile thinking she is Odette. Big mistake son.

Iain Mackay gives grace and power to the role of Prince Siegfried

The opening of the final act was a masterpiece. The curtain rises to release a wall of thick mist covering the lake which rolls into the orchestra pit and suddenly on an apparently empty stage the swans rise up through the mist - an opening well worth the applause it generated.

This version by Peter Wright which dates back to 1981 has served the BRB well and Peter Teigen should have a mention for his lighting design which conveys everything from storms and moonlight to emotion.

Special mention to for Jonathan Payn as von Rothbart who was suitably evil and also remarkably aware. During the storm scene with thunder and lightning raining down also raining down appeared to be a bright green ball - presumably not something that figured prominently in Philip Prowse's design - which fell on the steps at the back of the stage - luckily behind a cluster of swans who must have tucked it away at the base of the steps.

Seconds later Payn managed to spirit the ball off stage without breaking stride and without being noticed by most of the audience.

Swan Lake will continue to be a favourite and when you see a production like this it is easy to see why.

Roger Clarke 


Pars de deux . . . deux


THIS famous ballet bursts into life and colour at the start of the third act when the curtain opens to reveal the plush castle ballroom prepared for the arrival of three princesses from foreign lands.

The set and costumes are stunning, designed with great imagination and flair, and the dancing that follows to Tchaikovsky's beautiful music is a delight.

Perfect, in fact, for the artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet who are magnificent in the story of Prince Siegfried's search for true love after his mother warns on his 21st birthday that he must marry before being crowned king following his father's death.

On the night I attended Cesar Morales played the Prince with tremendous poise, combining impressively with Elisha Willis, the Princess Odette who, with her companions, had been transformed into swans by the evil Baron von Rothbart.

The swans can only return to human form between midnight and dawn, which is when Siegfried sees and falls in love with Odette, having rejected the lovely princesses.. Morales and Willis dance beautifully together, and there are magical contributions from  Mathias Dingman, the equerry Benno, and  Valentin Olovyannikov, a sinister figure indeed as von Rothbart.

A burst of applause came from the large audience at the opening of the final act when the swans rise from beneath a huge white mist, and just before that scene there were cheers for the brilliant Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis..To 26.06.10

Paul Marston 


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