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Subject: "BRB, Swan Lake, Sadler's Wells, evening 8.09.01" Archived thread - Read only
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Suzanne McCarthy

09-09-01, 09:27 AM (GMT)
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"BRB, Swan Lake, Sadler's Wells, evening 8.09.01"
   The Birmingham Royal Ballet has not had a very good press this week. Some reviews have had the unkind whiff of city sophisticates looking down their noses at their provincial cousins come to town. But there have been rumours that BRB had got better as the week progressed. On the basis of last night’s performance there is justification for these differing opinions.

Let us start with what was excellent about last night. Nao Sakuma, still a soloist, was an outstanding Odette/Odile. Often dancers get the strong and sexy Odile, more in keeping with our modern feminist culture, right, while not striking an equally clear chord of sympathy with the imprisoned, but equally passionate, Odette. Nao brought off both. In Act II she begins as Rothbart’s captured bird, but realising, as her belief in Siegfried’s love increases, that she might escape, her dancing develops a thread of hope. Her movements throughout are sure, smooth and, befitting a powerful and beautiful wild thing, effortless. In contrast, as Odile, she is all sex and strong perfume.

Some credit for Sakuma’s star performance has to go to her Prince, Sergiu Pobereznic, well known to some from his days at the Royal Ballet. The Prince, as is often the case in the classic ballets, is required to inhabit all of the courtly male virtues, courtesy, balance and manliness. Sergiu displayed those to good effect in partnering his swan lover. And love her he did, in all her guises. Particularly telling were the ways in which he pulled her towards him, gently and with increasing desperation in Acts II and IV. And he has a healthy lust for Odile in Act III. Like another Russian feathered spirit, the Firebird, when he lifted her in Act IV it was to keep her with him on earth rather than to letting her fly.

In addition to the lead dancing, what set last night’s performance apart, was Peter Wright’s interpretation of this classic as a political and physiological drama. Politics has always been an underlying theme in Swan Lake. (It is no coincidence that the villain has a German name, and in this production he even seems to be wearing a Teutonic knight’s helmet.)

The death of the King, brilliantly presented as a prologue funeral procession, set the scene. Interregnums are never easy times. This Queen Mother, (the critics were spot on in noting Marion Tait’s excellent character performance), and her son do live in a small kingdom in need of alliances. This is well brought out in Act III where each princess is introduced by her national delegation and then gets a shot of dancing with the prince, combining elements of a beauty parade with blind date. Interestingly Odile’s courtiers mark her entrance with the Spanish dance, a 19th century equivalent of the salsa. One wonders how the Queen Mother will take the news of the King’s heir, and her son’s, death? Somehow one feels this Queen would have found a way of keeping the kingdom intact.

This Swan Lake marks Siegfried’s evolution from an impressionable and immature young man to a heroic figure. At his first entrance he is, like Odette, fighting against his destiny to wear the crown and the accompanying entrapment of marriage. His friends can easily seduce him to act like a juvenile. As the ballet goes on he grows in maturity, and therefore his death is the greater loss. Odette also displays her mental anguish. In Act IV her grief is not just for the loss of Siegfried, but also for what he means; freedom from her false reality and the opportunity to transform into her real self.

But not everything was right with this production. Act 1, often a happy, albeit usually somewhat boring, peasant’s teaser for the drama to come, did not start well. Carol-Anne Millar and Ambra Vallo, made good courtesans, but the prince’s companions were lumpy, and some of the Act’s choreography seemed ridiculous. Further, while the scenery for the Lake was lovely with moonlight floating on the water, the dancing was not. The swans particularly in their initial scenes did not have their act together. Some have argued what was lacking were more swans, but it is not certain that a quantitative difference would have necessarily meant a qualitative one. Yet, the cygnets, passed with flying colours. So what happened to the rest of the flock?

Finally, we come to the costumes. They must have had a sale on brocade and velvet somewhere in Birmingham when they were putting this show together since the national dancers were overloaded. While ballet is theatre, there is something wrong when the clothes get in the way of the movement. The Russian dance by the men (a whole chorus of young men in blue tights and elder statesmen in clone-like black hair and beards wearing heavy gold coats) was a disgrace to the Russian folk dancing tradition. These guys certainly would not have thrown their vodka glasses into the air at the end of that sad routine. And someone should sell the swans’ outfits to the Trocaderos and get these birds some new feathers. It may give them the lift they need.

At the end it comes down to whether this production had magic. Often the Swans produce it with their regimented and powerful beauty in Act II. While there were no moments like that in this performance, there was Nao Sakuma whose dancing will be remembered.

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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  RE: BRB, Swan Lake, Sadler's Wells, evening 8.09.01 Ann Williams 09-09-01 1
  RE: BRB, Swan Lake, Sadler's Wells, evening 8.09.01 Bruce Madmin 10-09-01 2

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Ann Williams

09-09-01, 12:22 PM (GMT)
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1. "RE: BRB, Swan Lake, Sadler's Wells, evening 8.09.01"
In response to message #0
- I really enjoyed this sparky review (your first?) - keep 'em coming!

I agree with most of your comments - not least about the quirky costuming - but you may have been a little too lenient with the production. I saw two performances this week and believe me, it did not improve on second viewing. To be fair, there were some strong points - the partnerships of Sakuma/Poberezbic (last night) and Smolen/Helmets (Thursday) in particular. The latter may have been the most interesting, and it seems the critics were not it to review it. A pity.

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Bruce Madmin

10-09-01, 11:17 AM (GMT)
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2. "RE: BRB, Swan Lake, Sadler's Wells, evening 8.09.01"
In response to message #0
   now off for a read of what everybody else thought...

Company: Birmingham Royal Ballet
What: Swan Lake

Where: London, Sadler's Wells
When: 5th and 8th September 2001

In short...
A class production, well worth catching, let down initially be a company currently a little less used to the classics than they perhaps should be. The soloist Nao Sakuma has made a great debut - one to watch.

This is a production by Peter Wright (the ex Artistic Director that took Sadler's Wells RB to Birmingham) and often considered something of a doyen for his productions of the classics. His Swan Lake is now nearly 20 years old and has not been seen for some years, so how would it hold up against the Kirov's and the rather criticised RB productions seen in London over the summer?

Wright would never do massive tinkering with a classic, but he does often take the care to 'explain' plots rather better then you will find elsewhere. The BRB production opens with the funeral of the King, Siegfried's father, and this later puts in easy perspective the Queen Mothers sternness over drinking and wish to get Siegfried married off and ensure continuity. As a prologue it lasts all of 30 seconds and yet adds so much.

The first act also seems more involving of Siegfried and the use of two Courtesans smacks of more reality then lots of group dances one normally sees. I also like the way Rothbart is used much more in the second and last acts - his control of the swans is clearly seen and the struggle between good and evil is overtly the more physical.

Sets and Costumes
By Philip Prowse these are heavy and rich. I think them quite handsome and he millenary in the third act is totally inspired and something Mrs Shilling(*) would have been proud of. The Spanish Dance, always camp, is made all the more delicious by long semi-erect feathers in the Boys caps...

The tutus are soft affairs, gently rounded but not too long - delightful - though the designs for the boys are a bit too hot on identikit beards for my taste.

What is the Swan Lake choreography? - almost an eternal debate amongst ballet historians and aficionados. The reality is that all productions share a few common elements but much is down to the actual producer. Wright's act 1 is the most different to my eye with far less for the corps and much more reliance on soloists roles and the choreography overall seems in keeping with tradition and flows naturally for me. No grumbles here.

Umm... On the opening night the company looked woefully underehearsed and out of salts. Marion Tait's corps looked OK but it was the soloists roles where the company seemed to struggle and they just looked unhappy in repertoire that should be second nature to them and yet is not - not at the moment anyway. All this extended to the opening night partnership of Leticia Muller and Andrew Murphy, he just looked like he didn't want to really be there (we subsequently heard that some personal problem I think) and in the dance for Siegfried, Benno and the Courtesans they were all over the place.

I also think we were struggling with a stage less full then when the much larger Kirov and RB perform. Unfair of course but natural in a way.

On Saturday I got to see Nao Sakuma and Sergiu Pobereznic dance the lead and I had a much happier time. My eyes were adjusted to the numbers on stage - which now looked filled fine enough - and the dancers all looked a little sharper. It is though a warning to the company that to avoid the classics for too long can leave them struggling and they still have a fair bit of work to do. However Sakuma was just terrific - it was only her second performance but she looked far more assured than that. And, quite rare, she was actually stronger in the more difficult Odette role - abandoned and yet full of guarded longing.

The huge eyed and normally lively Sakuma seemed determined not to over-egg Odile though, but I'm sure she will turn the wick up on this as she gets more under her belt. The last act was very moving and in a fairytale world it would have been nice if she had walked off stage to hear Bintley tell her she was now a Principal. In the real world he's better make a principal at the end of the year or she will surely go. But I was pleased to see another step along her way.

I also liked Carol-Anne Millar as one of the Courtesans - she joined the company only 4 years ago and is already a Soloist - her musicality burst through. Less assured was Krzysztof Nowogrodzki as Benno, who seemed very workmanlike and laboured. However Marion Tait's Queen Mother is beyond reproach: at 50 paces she could cause the immediate onset of brittle bone disease with just one icy stare.

Does it work?
A great production and it will settle down as the company tour it more. A shame that their first performance in London struggled but that should not put people off. Great that the best productions in the country are currently toured by BRB and ENB and as such available to all (well nearly all).

(*) Mrs Shilling was something of a national institution for the outrageous hats she would wear to go and see horse racing. Ascot has not been the same since she died in 1999.

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