Celebrating the Prince Siegfried's birthday, his friends, tutors and local peasants waltz their way through a forest clearing in front of the Palace. Interrupting the conviviality, the Prince's father announces Prince Siegfried must end his carefree ways and marry. Upset, he and his friends are distracted by a flock of birds, and decide to go hunting.
We are transfixed. With rich costuming, subtle but evocative sets and the incredible grace of ballerinas moving through the round stage with ease, aside from a few cheeky comments about the beauty of muscled men in leotards, we sit in stunned silence whilst Tchaikovsky's score weaves a spell around us.
The lights reveal a deep and still lake, mysterious with dry ice. A shiver goes down my spine as the famous B-minor oboe melody swirls through the Royal Albert Hall. Delicately, a court of enchanted white swans glide into view perfectly in time with the swelling score. The Prince goes to shoot one with his bow, before freezing as one of them transforms into a beautiful maiden, Odette. Initially scared of this maundering hunter, she shows him that they are victims of a terrible curse destined to live as swans during the day, only transforming into their human forms in the evening. She is the Swan Queen and the embodiment of their hope.
Living on a lake magically formed from the tears of the Swan Queen's grieving mother after Von Rothbart the evil sorcerer kidnapped her, Rothbart turns up occasionally (in a magnificent cloak) to terrify them. Seigfried offers to kill the sorcerer, but Odette declines knowing that the curse can only be broken whilst Rothbart is alive, by someone who has never loved before swearing to love Odette forever. Falling slowly in love, Prince Seigfried looks on in amazement as the beautiful creatures further fill the lake and turn back into swans as dawn breaks.
There are simply not enough words to explain the incredible grace of the ballerinas gliding to the stage. With arms delicately extended, soft snow white tutus poised gently and the beautiful movements of the dancers into prone supplicant positions, we watched as human dancers somehow transformed into graceful swans before our eyes.
Somehow knowing nothing about the story before we went meant we could lose ourselves in the evocative emotion conjured in the rich score and the rest of the tragic story. Music is an international language, and written intentionally to stir a level of emotion we don't need every day, but lives in our souls.
To many people, the ballet and opera is something only accessible to the educated upper classes, but nothing, nothing beats the experience of losing yourself in the live experience of music portraying an evocative story of love and loss. (Twilight, eat your heart out.)
Even with cheaper seats in the gods - it was after all just an ordinary Wednesday - we witnessed something extraordinary. The classical formations of choreography mostly unchanged since the 19th Century, the love of elegant movement by ballerinas who study for years pushing their bodies to the limit of their ability and the retelling of Russian folk tales are timeless, even to a barbaric antipodean like me. Sitting overlooking the entire stage, we were able to really appreciate the beautiful lines of the ballet company, as well as the graceful movement of the individual dancers.
What did we learn? That ballet is about wordless passion and skill.