English National Ballet’s My First Ballet: Swan Lake. A review

Invited by English National Ballet to review their My First Ballet production of Swan Lake, guest writer Catherine Prescott asks, what’s the right age to take a child to a ballet for the first time?

Picture credit: English National Ballet School students in My First Ballet Swan Lake © Laurent Liotardo.

Much as my two mini-ballerinas, aged 3 and 6, love their dance classes, I’m not sure they’d sit through a full-length, grown-up Swan Lake. Luckily, they don’t have to. All the magic of Tchaikovsky’s classic fits into one hour in this enchanting production, designed for children aged 3 and up.

Swan Lake is the latest in English National Ballet’s My First Ballet series, which has previously included fairy-tale favourites Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. As before, an on-stage narrator talks the young audience through the plot, introducing the language of ballet along the way.

In this revised story, the famous dual-role of Odette/Odile is split, taking the pressure off one student dancer and allowing the black and white swans to dance together on stage. The plot soon enters Frozen territory, as a traditional bad girl is portrayed sympathetically and two strong female leads tell a tale of ‘magic, friendship and love’.

We see evil magician Rothbart turn Odette into a swan before our eyes, which helps to clarify the mysterious premise of girls dancing as swans. My daughters were captivated as strobe lightning struck the stage, Odette’s arms became gracefully wing-like and she appeared to float away.

Luigi Cifone’s Rothbart adds threat without too much menace – no nightmares here. He tricks Odile into betraying Odette, but her courage and loyalty win through in an unusually redemptive ending.

The corps de ballet of eight swans doesn’t overwhelm the stage, but it’s impressive for the newbie audience. Second-year students at the English National Ballet School fill the pared-down roles capably. Beatriz Kuperuz in particular drew applause for her relentless fouettés as Odile.

My girls were spellbound throughout. “I love it,” whispered my three-year-old, a few minutes in. The floaty dresses and sparkling tiaras had them in gasps. They struggled to choose their favourites in the most playful scene, as the Hungarian, Italian and Spanish princesses took turns to impress the prince.

Inspired, my girls danced and twirled around the bar for the full 20 mins of the interval. When I offered my youngest, Lara, a drink, she said, “I’m not Lara. I’m Odette and I’ve been turned into a swan.”

I think that’s what I was hoping for from their first trip to the ballet – for their eyes to grow wide and their imaginations to fly. While older ballet fans may miss a live orchestra and crave more dance content – there’s no Dance of the Cygnets, for example – My First Ballet is out to capture a brand new audience and does so beautifully. As an introduction to the art form for the tiniest of dancers, this gorgeous production is perfectly pitched.

My First Ballet: Swan Lake is on tour until 20 May 2018. For more information see the English National Ballet website.

Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.

Catherine Prescott is a freelance copywriter, ex-blogger and mum to two small girls. Her website is under construction.

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