Jonathan Gray goes on another trip to the lake to see Polina Semionova take to the stage of Birmingham Hippodrome
|Company||Birmingham Royal Ballet|
|Date||17 February 2023|
Just a few weeks after English National Ballet's production of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's Swan Lake ended its run at the London Coliseum, up popped yet another staging of the inexhaustible Tchaikovsky classic. Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) has been presenting Peter Wright and Galina Samsova's version of the ballet, in the designs by Philip Prowse, for more than 40 years, but the packed audience for the performance at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 17 February was there as much to see guest artist Polina Semionova dance the role of Odette-Odile as it was to watch this latest revival.
Of the three “traditional” productions of the ballet presented by the major companies in the UK, Wright and Samsova's is perhaps the most coherent – it is certainly a more persuasive and intelligent interpretation of the ballet than the muddled version currently danced by The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden – but whilst there is much to admire in the way Wright and Samsova draw out the story of Prince Siegfried's love for Odette, the enchanted Swan Queen, it sometimes goes on for far too long. Yes, I can understand the dramatic requirement to underline the dynastic necessity of Siegfried choosing a bride during the royal ball in Act III, but this is usually accomplished with just the short waltz Petipa choreographed for Siegfried and his prospective fiancées – these princesses don't all then need to dance solos as well.
It's a handsome production, even if Prowse's designs – especially the costumes – are beginning to look a little dated now, and it retains much traditional choreography, although this Swan Lake follows more in the lines of the ballet as danced in Soviet Russia, which tends to exaggerate the wing-like arms and hand movements of the Swan Queen and her Swan Maidens. It's sometimes worth remembering that during the lakeside scenes, Odette and her companions are not birds anyway, because they transform back into human form at night.
Polina Semionova, at the invitation of BRB's director Carlos Acosta, was dancing with the company for the first time that night, and there was an air of excitement in the auditorium. Although Russian-trained, Semionova performs with Staatsballett Berlin, as well as appearing as an international guest artist, and she is certainly not new to the role of the Swan Queen. Tall, with long arms and legs, strong feet, and a supple back, Semionova moves her limbs with beautiful, yearning fluency, stretching the expansive lines of Ivanov's choreography out into the space around her – every move she made was secure and honed, demonstrating her fine schooling. She is strong, yet vulnerable, and Semionova was not afraid to smile and give the impression Odette has at last found some hope for the future whilst Siegfried tenderly rocks her in his arms during their pas de deux in Act II.
Like many Russian ballerinas, however, Semionova overstates the undulating, wing-like motions with her arms, and she also needs to interpret Odette's famous mime scene (a sequence, admittedly, often omitted in other Swan Lakes) with greater clarity and musical phrasing. As Odile, the apparition the wicked Von Rothbart conjures up at the royal ball to confuse Siegfried and break his vow to Odette, Semionova danced brilliantly and fearlessly, but made her too obviously a wicked schemer – more subtlety of characterisation, here, I think, pays dividends. Despite my quibbles, there is no question Semionova offered an exciting and intelligent account of the role, and she certainly galvanised and inspired the dancers performing alongside her.
Matching Semionova at every step of the way was BRB's own principal Brandon Lawrence as Prince Siegfried. Tall, handsome, and beautifully proportioned, Lawrence gave a magnificent performance, expressing with poignancy Siegfried's sadness following the death of his father (the ballet opens with a funeral procession for the dead king), and then the joy and hope he thinks he has found when falling in love with Odette and pledging himself to her. Not only was he a superb partner for Semionova, supporting her with utmost care and strength, but his dancing was at top level, too. His wonderful, soaring jumps and swift pirouettes, so musically phrased they seemed completely at one with the music, were also used to express the emotions of his character – every step that flowed out of him was there for a reason, and not simply for an empty display of technique. Lawrence is absolutely at the top of his game, and BRB is lucky to have such a superb artist within its ranks – the world of ballet should be laying laurels at his feet.
If some of the character roles were not given the same weight and experience normally associated with BRB artists, there was some excellent dancing to be seen at soloist level, especially from Riku Ito, formerly of Northern Ballet, performing with exciting commitment as Benno, Siegfried's friend, and the variations taken with style by Karla Doorbar, Miki Mizutani and Beatrice Parma. Conductor Martin Georgiev led an emphatic account of Tchaikovsky's score, and the corps de ballet danced with a lyrical unity I had not seen from it for some time, especially the Swan Maidens in Act II. A big night for Birmingham Royal Ballet, then, and a well-deserved one.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.
I was there for this performance and really appreciated Carlos Acosta inviting guest principals like this, but as you point out, this Royal company has its share of great dancers too. Brandon Lawrence certainly, but also Celine Gittens and others. I wish we would return to the presenting of flowers at curtain call. They were truly deserved in this instance.
Years ago, during the brief period she was a principal with ABT, I went out of my way to buy a ticket to see her at the Met in Swan Lake, in which I had heard she was good. I believe she didn’t even show up, was replaced by someone else. This was so often the case when ABT thought it could solve its problems by importing European “superstars” instead of giving more opportunities to its own local talent. In some cases the Europeans didn’t show; in other cases they were jet lagged or lacked rehearsal time or something else that caused them to be disappointments, at least in my view.
Semionova didn’t last long. I don’t know why. I know that in some cases the Europeans liked coming during the big spring season but didn’t want to to tour like other ABT principals, perhaps preferring to do gala gigs, which I understand are big in Europe.
In any event, ABT seems to have stopped importing “superstars,” at least for the time being, and we are getting more and more opportunities to see the home grown talent.