A Swan Lake sublime

Swan Lake – Birmingham Royal Ballet – Mathews, Lawrence, Dingman – Jan 28 2016, The Mayflower, Southampton.

 

John Keats and Russian myth don’t seem at first sight to be related but seeing Delia Mathews and Brandon Lawrence dance together was an event underlining the idea that sometimes truth is really beauty, and beauty truth. In the hands of these strong dance communicators there was here beauty, and so too truth, recognisable as great art.  The Swans may (and to pun, slightly) like Keats ancient vase, be mute, but thanks to Marius Petipa and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s fine body of dancers, they sing in other ways.
The Greeks may not have quite romanticised the Swan as the Germans and Russians did in the 19th Century (Leda is a close comparator, even though Zeus is in his potencies rather more mighty than Rothbart, who is of a more rural, domestic, druidic type of evil) but they surely understood the power of Terpsichore, the Muse of dance, whom they held to be sacred, and the line from her to Petipa and Ivanov is, despite the distance of millennia, traceable at least in shared ideals. Why else do we watch dance, and stories in-dance in particular if not to be edified, or even moved?

There is little of the pastoral in Wright’s staging. There is a coldness in the palatial settings that are less than palatial. Wright abjures the fey as the German myth does: had Odette been a fairy, the story loses all grip and force. His colonnades and Philip Prowse’s costumes are lethargic with involution and insularity. The wild is gothic and close: the famous lake shimmers in the distance, the woodland scene is has dark, gnarled trees and stunted bushes. Just the place for a prince to have his world changed.

This prince, Brandon Lawrence’s Siegfried, is like a man out of place in this dour candlelit realm. He is pure, almost a naïf, he is put upon and expected-of, and he is vulnerable and thus moving. Add Delia Mathew’s glorious doomed creation of Odette to that universe and the results are dazzling.  The naïve meets with this vision of the otherworldly, love blossoms, and then tragedy, the libretto respected, the treatment respectful.

As I wrote in my previous viewing of this fine show, Wright’s version excels in the narrative arc it provides for Siegfried. Lawrence is a noble dancer, steps seem the more graceful because of his size, as if he is giving them a wider, brighter canvas than they would otherwise find. This quality of expansive, centrifugal motion allies itself with grace. Distances become mundane, and descriptions of the body, its assumptions into space become clearer. I am not always a taller, bigger, longer fan, but quality in any guise shines forth, and in all ways, Lawrence has these qualities. A good test is in the pas seul given in Act I, here a miniature within the more traditional pas de trois. Lawrence’s line illustrated the musical line set down. Arabesques spoke and reached and the steps felt not extraneous, or dutiful, but as part of a vocabulary of loneliness. A delight to watch.

In Delia Mathews’ Odette there is quiet nobility and great refinement. Vulnerability is sidelined – as before this is not a magical Odette, chimerical in liminality, majestic in import or otherworldly status. This Odette is woman first, princess second. The heart speaks loudly, and most eloquently when she is with Lawrence’s Siegfried. In a performance illuminated from a love of dance, and a love of the story, she engages our most human sympathies, and her appeals create high pathos, propelling the story onward. Such is the strength of portrayal on display that one hungers for more and one starts to imagine further depths of potential. I have no doubt that there is, remarkably, even more room to grow for her in the role and hope she may have the opportunity to do so.

The pas de deux from Act II (a high-water mark of Western civilisation in my eyes and I am not ashamed to admit this, nor do I wish to defend any claims of High art or art’s exclusivity,) was as at Sadler’s Wells, a fine example of this partnership. This time, the trust in the deep caught penché was perhaps less discernible to me from where I was (a little too close for binoculars, but too distant for my eyes to make out subtleties,) but with curiosity yielding to temptation and binoculars in hand, their world came even more alive.

Mathews was caught, her hands fluttered from tips, fingers and hands softly moving as if gently beating the air,  an illusion which transmitted to arms and back as if energised from within – an achievement of grace which was total and convincing. I drew breath, a gasp at the moment. It is a moment I will not soon forget. And it was a moment which reminds why we watch ballet. The pas de deux was narratively fine, quietly clarion in expressiveness, hushed as the auditorium was too when watching it. It was in its unfolding, dancing which was like like some heavenly whisper.

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Dramatically it was a great success. This Odette danced for her Siegfried and for him only: we were lucky onlookers. This sublime partnership was nurtured in the greatest tenderness, flew in transport of tenderness, gained and won our hearts and then dashed its love to oblivion.

In terms of chemistry too, the pairing works well both for Odette and her evil cousin Odile. Lawrence and Mathews are both leggy, tall dancers, the writing for both suits them. As Odile, Mathews’ gaze was level and cheeky. This minxy creature bore accusation and sly contempt in her looks and smiles. The seduction of Siegfried and of ourselves was quickly accomplished. It was singles all the way in fouettés, Mathews choosing quality over quantity, knowing the circus trick for what it is, a gesture rather empty and out of place, and aside from that, there was gleeful exuberance and wit in her tormenting of Siegfried.

wpid-wp-1445117163014.jpg Act IV lingers in the mind I can see again. Odette’s pain passing over her face, her despair visible for all, and her decision to die, loud, clear, frightening. Odette’s leap into oblivion called Siegfried to the same oblivion, for them to end tpgether in the empyrean.

I rather prefer the ROH’s “Sleigh of Rapture” at the end, Wright’s bringing out the body at the end and the showing of the two lovers in some kind of numinous realm isn’t quite as beautiful to me, but the pair are wonderful together. I only wish to see them once more.

 

After threatening to exhaust superlatives (and perhaps a reader’s patience) let’s now turn to the other casts members, strongly supporting this exquisite pairing. Mathias Dingman’s Benno was splendid. I couldn’t fault him in anything. Memorable was his “bow-body” in imitation of hunting, finely given and full of ebullience and youthful verve his variations in the pas de trois from Act II. All in all, pretty much faultless – as one would expect from his status as Principal. Ana Albutashvili’s Queen was youthful (of course, as she is young,) but imperious. Her anger at her wayward son was amusing to see.  Laura Purkiss (dancing in her hometown!) was delightfully suggestive as a courtesan, finding a strong pairing opposite Angela Paul.

Cygnets (Laura Day, Karla Doorbar, Reina Fuchiama, Emily Smith) were martial in synchronisation of step (always nice to hear as well as see,) pas de chats lovely in unison, but one lady from the team seemed rather shorter than the rest, to the diminishment of the famous party-piece’s effect. Swan lines were good in discipline of rank and file and line in unison strong too (I particularly like their menacing of Rothbart at the end,) and lead Swan Maidens (Yvette Knight, Yijing Zhang) strong. Neapolitans ( Laura Day, Karla Doorbar, Jonathan CaguioaTzu-Chao Chou) leapt and smiled with their tambourines  -bashed without any missed hits, and their hats glittered gaily. It was a pleasure to spot William Bracewell as an angry Hungarian (I think, or he may have been a Pole…) Celine Gittens showed impressive precision and flair in her brief yet brightly drawn dance as his Princess.

Mention must go to the violin soloist (Robert Gibbs I believe) who in all variations carefully observed the stage action, timing phrases in exactitude and matching choreography most impressively. Most notably in the Act II pas de deux this skill brought a permission for the choreography to breathe, to be crafted and to live. I also thought the opening phrases and famous themes using oboe (Alastar Bentley) sweetly expressive and fine. Koen Kessels’ conducting was excellent, tempos keenly modified, even on the fly, all themes lovingly stated, though the brass seemed to overwhelm the other instruments a little, even with a few wobbles, perhaps due to the venue’s large open pit.

The audience talked all the way through the overture to act II, something strange and new to me. (I think I have been among ballet-goers too long.) As such the establishment of that scene’s emotion suffered slightly, Tchaikovsky’s insistent quavers – his shorthand for ardency – were lost, and even at curtain-up there was still talking, until Rothbart appeared. I shouldn’t wish for that again, nor for the six foot five tall gentleman who sat in front of me, but to see Ms Matthews and Mr Lawrence, I would as I did here travel for five hours and more than one hundred and eighty miles to see them again. Indeed, to see this story danced with such love, I should travel to wherever they are dancing, whatever the distance, and whatever the cost.

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