Ahead of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of Swan Lake at The Lowry, Roz Laws talks to dancer Céline Gittens who along with Momoko Hirata takes on the double principal roles of Odette/Odile for the tour.
Céline Gittens made history in 2012 in Birmingham when she became the first black ballerina in the UK to take the starring dual role of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake.
“That was exciting but I’m glad it has become more common now,” says Céline. “I think we are quite far ahead in terms of diversity in ballet in the UK compared with other countries, and especially in Birmingham. It’s the most diverse city I’ve lived in or visited on tour.
“I’ve been treated the same as other people, I’ve been given opportunities and I’ve got here because of talent, which is the most important thing. It’s great to be a role model for future dancers from different ethnicities who didn’t know that dance is available to them.”
Birmingham Royal Ballet is reflecting Birmingham’s diversity with the recent appointment of Cuban dancer, Carlos Acosta as its director.
“There’s a real buzz about the building since he arrived,” reports Céline. “I’m very positive about the future with Carlos, he has so much drive and ambition for the company. He just wants the best out of us. His passion is so inspiring and it will lift us so much higher.”
Since Céline’s debut as the white and black swans, the 31-year-old has taken the role a handful of times, in Birmingham, Japan, and at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
She has been praised for her beautifully fluent technique and strong dramatic presence. The Times said her Swan Lake performance was “frail and beautiful” and “completely alluring”.
It’s a highly challenging role, famously involving 32 fouettés in Act Three – that’s 32 turns on one leg.
“That is tough, but you get used to it,” says Céline who started ballet at the age of three in her mother’s dance school. “It is my favourite role. Apart from the technical side, the most challenging part is the emotional side and making it believable. You have to make the audience understand the anguish and pain of Odette and then completely transform into an evil seductress as Odile.”
Céline practises her steps at least once a day to build muscle memory and makes sure Pilates sessions, ice baths, physiotherapy and massages keep her supple and relieve tight muscles.
When she has to stop dancing eventually, Céline might turn to choreography, but thinks teaching is where her future lies.
“I have a passion for that,” she says. “I’ve taught at the Elmhurst School in Birmingham and I go back to Canada to teach masterclasses and summer schools. I think it’s really important to pass on your knowledge and passion.”
Céline was born in Trinidad. Her family moved to Canada when she 9 and she has since spent time in Melbourne as a guest dancer with the Australian Ballet.
The link between all these countries is that they’re all in the Commonwealth, so Céline says she was “very proud” to take part in the fantastic dance performance in Birmingham in 2018, during the handover at the closing ceremony of the last Commonwealth Games. And she’s excited about the Games coming to her home in two years’ time.
“I really hope that BRB can be part of the opening ceremony,” she says. “I can’t wait to show the world what a brilliantly talented and thriving city Birmingham is!”
Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Swan Lake plays The Lowry from Wednesday 4 – Saturday 7 March 2020.