Monday, 13 February 2017

Ballet West at the Beacon

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Ballet West, Swan Lake. Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, 12 Feb 2017

I have been coming to Scotland at this time of the year to see Ballet West's winter show for the last four years (see Ballet West's "The Nutcracker" 25 Feb 2013, Swan Loch - Ballet West's Swan Lake, Pitlochry 1 March 2014 3 Marh 2014, Ballet West's Romeo and Juliet 1 Feb 2015 and  Thinking out Loud about Ballet West 8 Feb 2016). Each and every production has been a little better than the last. The current production of Swan Lake  is no exception.  Accordingly, it is the company's best show yet.

I saw Swan Lake last night at Greenock, a small town on the southern bank of the Clyde estuary about 25 miles from Glasgow, in the main auditorium of its magnificent Beacon Arts Centre, which is just over 4 years old.  That auditorium has a fair size stage and seats about 500 with an uninterrupted view from every point. The building is near the river and I would expect its location to command spectacular views of the river. Obviously, there was not much to see as I wandered down from Greenock Central station with my phone on Google maps at 18:00 on a cold, dark and drizzly Sunday evening.

I was welcomed to the Beacon by Ballet West's principal and artisic director, Gillian Barton, who staffed a concession stall with programmes and merchandise. She told me that the previous night's performance at the Armadillo (SECC) had been excellent and wondered how her company could possibly match that success. She added that Natasha Watson, whom I had mentioned in so many reviews and featured in A Cause for Double Celebration at the Robin's Nest 8 Feb 2016 and who had been cast as Odette-Odile, had fallen ill. Her place was taken by Uyu Hiromoto who is a second year student at the school. An exceptionally talented student it has to be said who had impressed me in last year's performance of The Nutracker and who had been selected to tour Malaysia (see Ballet West in Malaysia 18 June 2016) but Odette-Odile is a demanding role even for a principal ballerina of a major company.

If Gillian Barton really did worry about the performance, she need not have done.  I did not see the show at the Armadillo so I am in no position to compare the two, but I should be very surprised to learn that last night's performance fell short of Saturday's in any way. Last night's show was a triumph for two many reasons and here are just too. First, Hiromoto rose to the occasion magnificently. The second was casting Rothbart as a woman and the inspired execution of that role by Miranda Hamili.

Hiromoto and Hamili in their different ways are super talented young women. As my wise first ballet teacher (a seasoned performer who had once danced with the Queensland Ballet as well as a wonderful teacher) once warned, "ballet is a jealous mistress and a tough task master out to break you" so I will not tempt fate by forecasting a golden future for either of them. All I will say is that I sensed the same feeling that I had when I first saw Michaela DePrince in Amsterdam in 2013 (see The Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet - Stadsshouwburg Amsterdam 24 Nov 2013 25 Jan 2013) or Xander Parish at the York Summer School gala in July 2007 andjust  look at both of them both now. I knew I was looking at something special then and I saw something special again last night.

The reason why Swan Lake is so compelling is that it reveals two faces of humanity in the same dancer.  The sweet, loving, tragic Odette and the brassy, brazen Odile. I have seen many performances in my time and many of the world's leading ballerinas in  the role.  Some are the perfect Odette.  More are the perfect Odile. Few can dance both roles equally well (Scottish Ballet's Bethany Kingsley-Garner being one who can). Hiromoto, despite her youth, is another,  She was a perfect Odette - delicate, lyrical, willowy.  Could she transform herself into what Mr Trump would call "a nasty woman" I asked Daniel Job, the company's choreographer and artistic advisor during the interval. "You'd be surprised" he replied with a smile.  Job was right. Her head raised and somehow holding her arms and upper body in quite a different way Hiromoto transformed herself.  Haughty and heartless, she executed Legnani's 32 fouettés splendidly.  I was counting as I always do and ready to break into applause at number 28.

Hamili has a mastery of character. In Acts 2 and 4 she is of course the evil magician and danced the role largely as a man would have done but in Act 3 she came into her own. She dominated that Act as she slouched over the throne one leg slung over the arm of the chair.  Yawning first, then filing her nails much to the discomfort of Mary Anderson who danced the Queen. It was hard to take my eyes off her even for the divertissements which were beautifully danced.  She assumed centre of stage as Odile began the seduction scene whispering into Odile's shell-like not to accept anything less from Siegfried that betrothal. Ballet West had a brilliant Rothbart in Isaac Peter Bowry who is now dancing lead roles for Ballet Theatre UK. Hamili was every bit as good. Whoever cast her in that role, coached her and dressed her deserves a medal. She added a whole new dimension to the work.

However, they were not the only stars. As in 2014 Siegfried was danced by Jonathan Barton, a graduate of the school who is now its Vice-Principal and yet another Genée medallist. Even though I had seen Anthony Dowell and Rudolf Nureyev in that role I had always regarded Siegfrield as a secondary role because of the focus on Odette-Odile. But I have begun to understand his role better over the years and Barton has helped with that understanding. He is transformed in the ballet every bit as much as Odette. We see him as a callow and not a particularly nice teenager mad for gadgets and unwilling to grow up. "Gee, Ma, that crossbow is really cool." "Don't even mention marriage to me, ma" he gestures extravagantly when his mum suggests he has regal responsibilities.  He meets Odette and begins to grow, Reluctantly he becomes a hero.  He has to jump in the lake to do it but he liberates all those girls who would have been condemned as swans to scrub about bulrushes for stale bread from humans.

Oscar Ward, who accompanied Hiromoto to Malaysia, danced Benno. Ballet West's Benno is not quite as pivotal as David Dawson's but I could detect a little of Dawson's influence in the way Ward danced that role. He came into his own in the pas de trois supported delightfully by Sarah Nolan and Storm Norris. Later Ward danced the Neapolitan divertissement with Abigail Drew with the exuberance and charm.  It was good to see two familar faces, Dylan Waddell whom I had previously seen in MurleyDance and Ballet Cymru and Mark Griffiths who is also from Ballet Cymru. Those chaps danced several roles - guests at the party and Siegfried's mates on the swan shoot.  Later Waddell was also in the Spanish dance.

Other highlights included the cygnets (Alice Flinton, Perihan Gulen, Lucy Malin and Rebecca Strain), the divertissements (particularly the kids from Glasgow who were lovely and came close to stealing the show) and of course the swans in Act 2 and 4. I've had a go at learning the cygnets, Hungarian dance, prince's solo and swans' entry and know just how demanding those dances are (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3).

The current Swan Lake is a new production with new sets and, I think, new costumes.  The designs that I saw at Pitlochry in 2014 had been good but last night's were even better.  I instinctively drew breath as the curtain rose on the opening scene as the guests arrived for Siegfried's coming of age party. My only criticism of the whole evening was the excessive use of the yellow and blue filters in the lighting design. Swans are supposed to be white, not birds of Paradise, yet for long stretches of the evening they were yellow and blue. There were hitches. The arch of someone's cross-bow fell off, there was the occasional stumble, acts did not follow quite as fast as they might have done and the curtain came down slightly too late at the end of Act 2 and too soon early at the end of Act 4. But this was a tour and I have seen far worse from far more famous companies in far bigger theatres.

So Gillian Barton, Daniel Job and their cast can congratulate themselves on an excellent performance. Next year they will dance Giselle. I had hoped for La Sylphide as Gurn, James and Effie used to haunt Ichrachan House but I guess Madge must have put a spell on them.  I would love to see a Scottish company dance La Sylphide on their home turf but the nearest any of them have got is Sir Matthew Bourne's Highland Fling which Ballet Central (another ballet school's performance company) are taking on tour this year.

There is one more show before the dancers return to Taynuilt and that is at Edinburgh International Conference Centre on 18 Feb. If you are free that day and can get a ticket you should be there. Since I have been following them, this really is Ballet West's best show yet.

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