As a long-time fan of the ballet Swan Lake, I eagerly anticipated sharing it with my children (aged five and nine), at the English National Ballet’s My First Ballet series.  These shortened versions of traditional ballets aim to introduce young audiences (3 years plus) to classical ballet in a fun and accessible way. For us, it mostly succeeded.

The audience at the 5pm performance was – not unexpectedly – 95% mums and little girls, so my five-year-old son’s game of spotting dads and boys was rather short-lived! There was an audible buzz of excitement throughout the auditorium, which the young ones minimised as the lights dimmed and their necks craned forward in anticipation. “Hello!” The greeting came from our jolly and personable narrator for the afternoon, who stood centre stage in modern dress and gym boots.  In wide-eyed wonder and an animated voice, she led us through a story of friendship and loyalty, love and forgiveness.  Without being intrusive or obstructing the dancing, she helped transfix the young audience to the stage action.  Top marks!

As we were introduced to the main characters, I wondered just how modern this production would dare to go. Would it continue in the same vein as the narrator or was she just one of us?!

Peter Farmer’s original sets seemed like pages of a pop-up book coming to life; the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that emanated from the darkness showed how much they appealed to the youngsters. To me the sets seemed a little outdated.  His costumes were also traditional but beautiful; whilst I realise that little ballet girls dream of wearing tutus, I had hoped they would find a way of updating the production.  After all, Swan Lake is a magical world where anything is possible, so let’s stretch their young imaginations!  Gavin Sutherland had carefully edited Tchaikovsky’s wonderful and richly emotive score.  Some of the melodies were familiar to the young ears in the audience. He reached a subtle balance between adjusting the volume to suit the narration and yet not distracting from our listening pleasure.

The dancing from the English National Ballet School students was well on the way to being exemplary. The excellent training (and hours of dedicated hard work!) was evident as we were treated to confident and polished performances.  The soloists showed strong technique, clean lines, and lovely breadth of movement.  The girls’ pointe work was beautifully neat and tidy.  The Prince and his friends skilfully demonstrated the inherent athleticism of ballet.  My son watched their soaring jumps and multiple turns with an open-mouthed and big-eyed expression. (There is no walking in his life; only running and jumping!). In all the pas de deux the partnering and lifting were strong and secure.  The corps de ballet of eight swans were immaculate in their formations, timing, and uniformity.  At this point, my son told me he was hungry(!), and my daughter asked excitedly when the four little swans were coming on?  Answer: they didn’t!  The Cygnets is a well-known showpiece of Swan Lake and I agreed with her that it was disappointing not to include it.

I felt that the production would have benefited from more overall characterisation; this would have emotionally drawn the children in further and left them wanting to return for another story-ballet experience. There were some highly promising moments, particularly from Odile, who was commanding and fiery, and later, fiercely honest and loyal.  Similarly, the two Italian Princesses in Act II drew giggles and cheers from the children as they humorously vied for the Prince’s attention in the international ‘dance-off.’

Afterwards, on the pavement outside, my son held my hand and did spin after spin, while my daughter hummed the well-known overture as she practised ‘swan arms.’  The My First Ballet series was designed to give exciting, educational, and accessible ballet experiences; if my children were anything to go by, then “Bravo!” English National Ballet.

Lisia Newmark

25th April 2018