Swan Lake is the first ballet I ever saw, a grandiose affair in the Gran Teatro de La Habana, a venue so suited to the genre that it is the home to Ballet Nacional de Cuba (who performed on that day back in 1995). It was something of an occasion, when even the grande dame of Cuban ballet came out on stage to address the audience, a special treat indeed. At the age of 26, I hadn’t thought the ballet was for the likes of me, a young woman more at home at Milwall’s New Den football stadium than the Royal Opera House. Ballet in Britain simply wasn’t accessible, unlike in Communist Cuba.
We’ve come a long way in Blighty since then and, in 2020, thanks to schemes such as Rural Touring Dance Initiative, dance is promoted to and enjoyed by folk in village/church halls, schools, community centres, libraries and even town centre cafés. Living Spit bring accessibility one step closer to people of all ages – Swan Lake is being performed in various venues in the West, including this pop up theatre in a shopping centre, Theatre Shop. Gone is the need for each member of the audience to personally interpret Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet because this much loved local duo of funny men do that for us.
Stu Mcloughlin and Howard Coggins, aka Living Spit, have a tremendous following round these parts, evident from the sold-out 14 show run here in Clevedon. Their blend of camaraderie with each other and the public and their writing in rhyme and song gives them a unique edge, one that makes us all sure we’re in on the joke.
Howard is ‘Coot’, a senior member of the Wetlands Avian Committee (WAC), who presides over the committee meeting, and Stu is his junior ‘Mallard’, while we are various water fowl members. WAC has received a proposal to rename the local body of water know as ‘Swan Lake’ because, well, there aren’t any swans on it. It’s up to Coot and Mallard to explain its history, cue their own telling of this tragic love story, with the help of a couple of Terns, Teresa and Terry, members of the Wetlands Avian Balletic School of Dance (WABSOD). In real life, Terry and Teresa are professional dancers; contemporary dancer Josh Hutchby is love-struck Prince Siegfried, while ballerina Francisca Mendo is the cursed Princess Odette, who has been magicked into a daytime swan by the sorcerer Rothbart (Mcloughlin) but free to walk and dance as a human by night. Hutchby and Mendo, up closer than such talent is usually witnessed, make complicated lifts look effortless and their different disciplines really do compliment each other.
It’s unnecessary to reveal much more about the plot as these guys have that covered but you should know that there are laughs aplenty, from the clever (and of course, silly) songs, the odd bit of toilet humour and some dressing up. Stu and Howard give room for the dancers to display their skill and beauty, managing to bring balance; this is as much about the exquisiteness of the dance as the idiosyncratic writing. Co-produced with North Somerset’s Theatre Orchard, Swan Lake is an unusual beast in that it weaves together the high brow with the truly popular, proving that everyone has a reason and an opportunity to experience what was once out of reach.
Living Spit’s Swan Lake is most definitely a ballet like no other.
Swan Lake is currently on tour and performs at The Blakehay Theatre in Weston-super-Mare, 15-18 January