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"Swan Lake"
American Ballet Theatre
Opera House
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC, USA
February 8, 2005

by George Jackson
copyright © 2005 by George Jackson

ABT looked good, but did the ballet? Scenically, yes. This five-year old "Swan Lake" has a brighter setting than many another production. Once the brief prologue's forest depths are done with, no medieval gloom envelops the action and dancing. Zack Brown's pallet has something of Watteau's pastels for the three big outdoor scenes and an airy Historicism for the castle's grand hall, the only indoor location. Nowhere did the stage space and vistas contradict the sweep of the Tchaikovsky music, although the scene-change scrim of trees is annoyingly flimsy.

The cast for this performance, which was being filmed for future television showing, seemed specially chosen. Partners and ensembles had been meticulously size-matched. Everyone looked polished to the hilt and nearly everyone was right as to role type. Attack and delivery were fresh throughout, never did the dancing appear studied.

Highlights of Act 1 were the pas de trois and the Prince Siegfried solos. In the trio, Herman Cornejo (as Benno, Siegfried's confidant and squire) and his two ladies, Xiomara Reyes and Erica Cornejo, were crisp, bright, buoyant. He was his virtuoso self, yet never a show off. (Would, though, he'd wear a more brow-revealing hairdo.) Neither of Cornejo's partners had I pictured before as flowers opening, but such was their gentle strength. Angel Corella's Siegfried arched impressively into the air, passed pliantly through landings and projected the contrasting qualities needed for this version of the role— youthful insecurity and princely breeding. Corella and Herman Cornejo work well together as Siegfried and Benno. Corella moves on a simpler, grander scale than Cornejo with his concentration.

The star of Act 2 was the ensemble of swans, 20 of them plus 6 ensemble soloists (Michele Wiles, scheduled to be in the principal role of Odette/Odile at Saturday's matinee, was of one the pair of "big" swans). Tonight they were symphonic swans, not quite the equals of the great Petersburg, Moscow, Paris or London corps de ballets but also not eclipsed by them. Gillian Murphy as Odette, leader of these transformed maidens, is a full-bodied young woman I couldn't quite get used to. In Act 2, her propulsion was sustained yet she didn't always dance her size. Murphy seemed to be scaling movement down to make herself look petite. I'd rather have seen her unfurl fully. Sometimes she gave passages in this great lyric role rather indefinite endings or, unexpectedly, abrupt finishes. Is this is an instance of casting against the grain? Not everyone suited to being, say, the smart village girl Swanilda in "Coppelia" is believable as an enchanted princess. Corella partnered Murphy devotedly but his acting during the great adagio was so passionate it seemed the prince wasn't just falling head over heels in love but already experiencing consummation.

Act 3, the great ball at which Siegfried is to choose a bride, inhibited Murphy less. As Odile, the false Odette, she took the chance to dance more amply. Impressive as her turns were, I again wasn't sure she was right for the role. In the Black Swan pas de deux with Murphy, Corella's coda was particularly brilliant. The national divertissements had dash, notably Gennadi Saveliev's Hungarian czardas, Maria Bystrova and Vitali Krauchenka's arched backs and castanet arms as one of the Spanish couples, and the Neapolitan competition-in-a-mirror of Carlos Lopez and Craig Salstein. Marcelo Gomes still exults in Rothbart the Sorcerer's dance. In the five years since this "Swan Lake" was new, he has become more appropriately the evil conjurer and less the showbiz magician. This version's brief Act 4 again starred the female ensemble as the swans.

"Swan Lake" is recognizable in Kevin McKenzie's staging. Choreographically, his is a traditionalist edition of the 1895 classic with the dances he devised for the Act 1 party and the Act 3 ball blending into the renowned passages "after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov'" (Act 1's pas de trois, practically all of Act 2—the swans, Act 3's Black Swan pas de deux—and at least the idea for Act 4—swans again). Dramatically what differs from other versions is the characterization of Siegfried in Act 1. Until he encounters Odette, this prince is unsuccessful with women in contrast to his squire. McKenzie's Sorcerer seems "after" the one in the brilliant Vladimir Bourmeister production (Moscow, 1953) although that isn't acknowledged.

Temperamentally what differs from Petipa and Ivanov is McKenzie's penchant for abridgement. The most drastic change has been to reduce the rich tapestry of choreography, characterization and pageantry to so-called essentials. As it now stands for television, the four acts really are two, the Tutor has nothing left to do in Act 1(what a waste to have Frederic Franklin just stand and walk about), there is no entourage to speak of for Siegfried's royal mother, the number of candidate brides presented to Siegfried in Act 3 is reduced from six to four, and the last act is a rushed pas d'action with too little leavening in the form of elegiac dancing.

ABT's "Swan Lake" is watchable, but does it satisfy?

Volume 3, No. 5
February 14, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by George Jackson


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