by Leigh Witchel
There were new swans making their debut at New York City Ballet this weekend. At the two evening performances, one claimed the role the moment she flew onto the stage. The other had to fight for it.
Saturday evening was Sofiane Sylve’s debut in the Martins production of “Swan Lake” but not her debut in the role. Not only does she have the advantage of experience, she’s a natural for the part. She’s got the height and long limbs to produce a line and the training to sustain it. Odette and Odile are tests of any ballerina, but there were times that Sylve barely needed to crack a sweat to turn in an immaculate performance. Sylve was trained in Nice rather than Paris but she has the impeccable retiré position that seems to be the mark of a French dancer. She moved from position to beautiful position in the lakeside act like a singer performing a familiar aria. As Odile, her technique was as dangerous as black ice.
Those precious few inches of height difference between Ashley Bouder and Sylve make legato dancing that much simpler for Sylve. Bouder also doesn’t have the blessing of repertory that led her to the part and she’s younger with less experience. All this made Bouder's debut on Friday night more of a challenge and milestone in her career and she seemed to know it. Illness and injuries forced an avalanche of casting changes, but Friday the 13th’s curse only managed to pop a strap on Bouder’s tutu at the opening and a momentary skid on a bourrée. Her first lakeside scene seemed restrained and calculated at the opening from the effort to do justice to it but soon her back sang. Like other swans who aren’t all leg, that’s where she will find the role. Act III is considerably more natural for her; she’s a lethal Odile. Maybe too gleefully letha the nastiness makes Siegfried look thick unless it's made very clear that von Rotbart is doing something to affect his judgment. Bouder nailed her Act III variations but without excessive fireworks; she did clean single attitude turns en dehors where Sylve did doubles that threatened to over-rotate, but didn’t. Each woman managed her fouettés without fear; Bouder inserted doubles at the end of each phrase for the first half while Sylve rolled out eight consecutive doubles at the outset and a near-textbook finish.
Benjamin Millepied made his debut as Siegfried along with Bouder. He also worked hard to do justice to the part, which is a stretch for him. He drags his feet along the floor heavily as he walks but can’t give himself the weight of a prince. Charles Askegard, who partnered Sylve, is an uncomplicated Siegfried and a clear mime, but there isn’t a sense of inner melancholy or destiny that would propel the story. Without that, it becomes a crazy accident where some guy meets a swan. Millepied found more inner depth, but he has more to offer in his dancing than his acting.
There were several other debuts, including two Bennos. Adrian Danchig-Waring was promising on Friday. He was a little blank out the outset of the pas de trois, staring en face like a deer in the headlights, but loosened up for his variation and made it through the demands reliably with handsome lines. Sean Suozzi performed exuberantly, but he pushes steps hard and has to work more for his line. He shows potential as an actor; he was dark and vivid in his mime.
The pas de trois on Friday, with Danchig-Waring along with Carrie Lee Riggins and Alina Dronova, making her debut in the first variation, could have used a little less speed and a little more juice. On Saturday, Kristin Sloan showed the ability to navigate quirky musical timing and Megan LeCrone did a lovely job in a role that doesn’t suit her. She would have looked perfect in the Russian dance in Act III but there were two other very good debuts in that part. Teresa Reichlen was a fiery Amazon; Ellen Bar was a sultry odalisque. Each was partnered by Jason Fowler in his debut; he burned quietly as an ardent foil to both.
In other roles, Daniel Ulbricht was astounding in his turns and jumps but Adam Hendrickson has always been that oxymoron, a tasteful and intelligent jester. He's knows when the focus shouldn’t be on him and isn’t egregious even in an egregious part.
The Act III pas de quatre was the same cast both nights, Jonathon Stafford with Ana Sophia Scheller, Tiler Peck and Megan Fairchild. It’s a demanding, quirky divertissement that’s often looked more difficult than impressive, but they did a bang-up job. Stafford, who is built tall and lanky, has filled out and now looks convincing in leading parts. Scheller can end turns in an extended position in the air as easily as if she had both feet on the ground. Both she and Peck are jumpers and with Fairchild, the three whirled into piqué fouetté turns with Rockettes synchrony. The house roared.
Of the NYCB ballerinas, the non-Balanchine-trained Sylve is the one who can most easily stand comparison to other dancers in other versions. But it may barely matter what version of the ballet Sylve performs, it’s going to look like “Swan Lake” on her. Bouder could use a version of Act II that lets her take her time and gives her stature. She found stillness in her variation but it’s a shame that one of Odette’s most poignant moments, her beautiful diagonal of arabesques in the coda, is deleted in favor of plunging right into allegro steps.
Martins’ Act IV is unorthodox; the ending and its meaning can certainly be discussed, but it does allows the ballerina moments not only of pathos, but of heroism. His reconciliation pas de deux in Act IV is one of the most heartfelt moments in the production. Bouder's beauty lies in the heroism that is in her expressive chest and expansive back. On one of Tchaikovsky's thunderclap crescendos the entire stage goes still as Odette stands braced in front of Siegfried to protect him as he swears his love once again. It's enough to vanquish Von Rotbart, but not enough to free her. At that moment, against the tempests of the music, Ashley Bouder seemed a million feet tall.
Volume 4, No. 2