Delia Mathews‘ Odette is one of the most exquisite characterisations of the role I have ever had the pleasure to see. (Her Odette is excellent too.) Rarely have I been more moved by the slow story of new love which is the Act II pas de deux. Mathews found the lyricism inherent in the narrative, and matched it with dancing that was beautifully serene. Steps were unrushed and were given “soul”. She found the drama in the dancing.
In the beautiful embrace in Act II, where Siegfried cradles Odette from behind, Mathews began the hold, taking his hands with hers, almost forcing his arms down with hers in fierce urgency. I felt the words “hold me!” strongly, as if she had been starved of love for an eternity and hungered for his embrace.
So too, the caught falls in that pas de deux were given a narrative intelligence I have never seen before. A small, almost imperceptible turn, a hand reaching and finding a hand, and release: no demure look here, no coyness. This Odette knew what she wanted. Her look was level and calm – almost a challenge. It was as if she was saying “this is a test. If you want my love, catch me.” He caught her, and they reached for each other again, and he caught her again. Each time she was caught and held she released herself in a deep bend, an ecstasy of rightness.
One felt their bond, which made the story burn brightly.
I was greatly moved.
I have been thinking on and off about the performance for days now, and have to conclude it worked because Mathews’ Odette is true to Fonteyn’s advice: “Odette is all woman.” Some may like their Swan princess more Swan-like and it is here the difficulty of the part lies, not in technique, but in presentation. Mathews’ Odette was a creation with few demure gazes, of little overdone “flapping”. There was no batting of eyelashes. Only a dignified, measured presentation fully felt. She had exchanged the pantomime of many Odettes for honest human dancing, to make a human Odette who could love her suitor. The love sparked.
Some might say that, as with Sara Mearns, a human Odette is a mischaracterisation. I can only reply that it is a pretty surefire way of succeeding in communicating emotion.
Mathews showed herself a powerful communicator not just in dance: Siegfried levels his crossbow at the evil Rothbart. If he fires, Odette remains a swan forever. I have never seen Odette’s gesture of “STOP” so forceful, nor so “loud”. Mathews stood en pointe, ramrod straight, arms out in desperation, her Odette’s whole being focused in that moment of crisis. To live she must stop his finger from finding the trigger. The moment could have silenced armies.
Mathews’ Odette spoke of loneliness and pain with great clarity and pathos. So manifest was her force of presentation – aided in part I think due to her fine physiognomy, a high, noble forehead and clear bright eyes (well used I must add) that her solos and pas de deux held the audience hushed. In the final act’s brief pas de deux, her head tilted ever so slightly in turns, and somehow expressed great sorrow. I gasped at her final leap into oblivion.
Odile, then. On her entry to the court she stared down the entire gathering: thrilling. Her dancing was slightly less fluid that I would have expected after having seen Odette but she had no problems with fouettés, nor the demands of any variations within the Act. This Odile was almost smirking, and I swear there was some seductive wriggling of the hips in there. It was a great performance all round from this stylish, intelligent dancer.
Let’s not forget her chevalier, Brandon Lawrence. Mr Lawrence is new to me, but what a pleasure it was to see him in action. I am guessing he is about six foot two or three (a guess, I stress!) with the result that lifts become genuinely breathtaking. I recall one travelling lift from Act III which traverses nearly the entire stage, Mathews describing a huge, beautiful parabola as she was borne aloft. (Odile’s grin there was, I judged, gleeful for more than one reason.) Other lifts such as the one crowning Act II before the re-statement of the “Swan theme” become magnificent due to pure elevation, and a travelling lift in At IV for trajectory alone.
Of course, the male partner is there to promenade and celebrate his partner, and in doing so, Lawrence was excellent, but Wright’s Prince also has a solo (often omitted, and here indeed slotted into the Act’s pas de trois.) Padded as it is by sprightly ebullience, the introspective moment serves as an anchor of narrative: we know this young man really mourns his father, and the impending loss of his freedom after the forthcoming arranged marriage. He showed the first flush of love wonderfully too. He and Mathews share a bond – call it for ease, chemistry – which convinces. No need for any acting coaching for Brandon (or for Delia!) no need to say “this or that could be better” they feel the story, and as a result we feel it too.
With dancers as strong as these, Wright’s already strong dramaturgy is given wings. Siegfried is no longer just a petulant Prince, or depressive, but is given a backstory. We see the curtain lift during the musical Introduction to see a funeral behind the scrim. Siegfried’s father. He part is “through composed”, and even watches Odette’s final bravura coda to her Swan corps dance as a besotted spectator. That dance no longer something for the audience alone, but now with another watching, it becomes a statement of Odette’s power over her flock, a display of her grace and their beauty, and something like a courtship dance. When Odette enteres the stage before that Act’s pas de deux, Wright has Siegfried swell bodily in a great in-rush of love with her unseen approach. He faces us and as the harp plays descending arpeggios his arms rise slowly, his eyes close and his breath comes slowly. He is enraptured. We see in that small moment a depth beyond any other Swan Lakes around.
Gothic, dour designs by Philip Prowse give this fairytale world believability. It was no wonder Siegfried wanted to escape such a stifling cloistered atmosphere, and not surprising that the call of the ethereal Lake should hold him in its thrall.
All the BRB’s Swan Lakes I saw had a truly outstanding Benno. In this performance, Max Maslen was musically precise, he illustrated all dynamics in the music with his steps, and looked to be enjoying himself to boot. Seeing four Neapolitans (Laura Day, Karla Doorbar, Jonathan Caguioa, Tzu-Chao Chou) was new to me, but they had really glittery hats, which warmed me to them, and they topped it off with bravura dancing of the highest order.
One Swan does not make a Swan Lake, of course. The corps were disciplined in all their floor patterns, well syncronised in their movements. Watching the Swans emerge from the dry ice of Act IV was magical, and to see them move as one is always a joy.
I encourage everyone to catch the production, and if Mathews and Lawrence are dancing, drop everything, cancel your plans and see them. You will not be disappointed.
Tickets here: https://www.brb.org.uk/