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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by David Mead

February 19th, 2008 - Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

It’s ballet and the theatre is pretty much sold out.  Yes, you guessed it; “Swan Lake” is back in town.  BRB’s Peter Wright and Galina Samsova production has now been around for almost 27 years, but it remains a huge draw, and a chance for more than a few in the audience to revel in romanticism and dream.

But to really live that dream, and for any narrative ballet to really come alive, the central figures need to convey not only the story, but their personalities and all those little things that really make us believe.  This is where Nao Sakuma really shines.  Indeed, she has blossomed into probably the best actress in the company.  Not only did she give us a technically flawless performance, she gave us two very different characters.  Her Odette was beautifully demure and delicate.  She was truly the perfect girl imprisoned in a spell from which there is no escape.  Her Odile could not have been more of a contrast and was about as bright and up front as you can get.  She wanted to snare Siegfried in the trap, and there was no doubt that she would get her man.

But for whatever reason, Sakuma’s sparkle somehow failed to completely ignite the performance.  Whether Chi Cao’s Siegfried was still preoccupied by his father’s death, who knows, but he certainly seemed to have his mind elsewhere.  His dancing was as technically excellent as ever, but all too often the expression was lacking.  He just didn’t seem interesting as a person and only really came alive during the Black Swan Pas de Deux, and a very real conversation he had with Benno at the beginning of Act I.  When with Odette, it was difficult to believe he was truly amazed by and in love with her.

Continuing with the theme of coldness, perhaps the production is not helped by Philip Prowse’s designs.  The ballroom is very sumptuous, dressed in its reds and golds, but the lakeside is a very dark place indeed.  While this does emphasise the sinister side of the ballet, and that is a side we must not forget, does it need to be quite so forbidding?

The two principals were well backed up by an excellent corps that looked to be right on form; Jonathan Payn’s dark without being over the top, and in the end vulnerable Rothbart; and Kosuke Yamomoto’s very believable Benno.  Yamomoto’s recent performances have not only oozed character but showed he has the technique to go with it.  Here, he gave us a number of precision multiple turns, each rock solid, and each stopped on a sixpence.

Despite the misgivings, the Birmingham audience lapped it up.  They even got the “aaaahhhh” right on cue as the curtain rose on Act IV to reveal the misty lakeside.  And the company certainly got a rousing ovation at the end, before we all trooped back out into Birmingham’s icy night, and off home – some, at least, I’m sure to dream of swans, princes and princesses.

The company was accompanied by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Paul Murphy.

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