The Youngest Swan
by Tom Phillips
It’s not fair to thrust an unknown young performer into a role meant for a master of the art, but that rule has never applied at New York City Ballet, where baby ballerinas are the speciality of the house. It’s not fair except when it works; and thankfully it worked well enough on Saturday, when 20-year-old Sara Mearns stepped up from the obscure ranks of the corps de ballet to dance Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake.” Her debut was notable not for technical brilliance, but for something rarer on the NYCB stagean instinctive sense of drama and character.
Mearns has been a dancer to watch ever since she arrived at the School of American Ballet in 2001. Sure-footed and strong, she attacks her steps directly and fiercely; she means what she dances. Her physical assets are long legs, and a classically tapered back that arches evenly like a bow. But her expression is as riveting as her ballet technique. Generally impassive and unsmiling on the surface, she nevertheless conveys an inner intensity, combined with a romantic softness that is all the more convincing because it comes literally from the heart, not the face. Watching her open out into a flower in the Nutcracker corps was like seeing nature itself at work.
All these gifts served her well from the moment she leapt onto the stage as Odette. Rather than miming emotions, she became the frightened swan right down to her fingertips, which remained delicately fluttering wingtips even when she was folded in upon herself. And her violently ambivalent feelings toward her lover, Prince Siegfried, were etched in a single arabesquearched toward him, flying away.
Just as remarkable was Mearns’ transformation into Odile, the evil sorcerer’s daughter. She barely changed the style of her gestures; rather she changed the intention behind them, the object of her desire. This was no acting trick, but the mark of an artist. Mearns evidently has both Odette and Odile in her, and knows herself enough to make them visible.
Ballet master and choreographer Peter Martins, in rolling the dice on Mearns’ debut, gave her plenty of help. His own son Nilas Martins, as Siegfried, gave her steady and sure support that allowed her to let go in their pas de deux; her own solo variations were a little more uptight. Martins fils covered for her in the "Black Swan" pas de deux. Mearns managed about eight of the infamous 32 fouettes before spinning off into some less challenging turns, while her partner took center stage.
Martins, usually stolid, seemed affected by his partner’s passion, so that his first solo variation covered extra ground and even took off into the air. But his acting was mostly limited to stock expressions of longing, despair and grief. This was the case in nearly all the character parts, with the exception of Dena Abergel’s Queen, who looked genuinely distraught at the end of the ballroom scene. The jester, Austin Laurent, won lots of applause for his lithe leaps and smooth turns, but couldn’t make us laugh. (As Montaigne said, first you have to make yourself laugh.) Then there was Von Rotbart the villain, danced by Henry Seth in the style of an MTV Halloween special. His over-the-top evil mugging earned him a good-natured chorus of boos from the kids in the matinee audience, but it did nothing to create a dramatic situation for Odette or Odile. Luckily, they could live without it. Sara Mearns believed in her own character, and so we did too.
NYCB is a dancing, not an acting company, and there were some sparkling pure-dance performances, notably Sterling Hyltin, sweeping her arms high, low and wide in the pas de trois, and a turbocharged trioMegan Fairchild, Ana Sophia Scheller, and Tiler Peckwho made the pas de quatre precise even at the breakneck pace set by conductor Andrea Quinn. Antonio Carmena and Joaquin de Luz were the macho men in these two divertissements, Carmena scoring with some robust sissones and a wide-open tour jete, and de Luz as usual turning like a top.
Quinn’s conducting was another boost for Mearns. She whipped the orchestra into a passion in the overture, and never let them go. Brava Andrea, brava Sara. Mearns will dance the part again this Tuesday, January 17.
Volume 4, No. 2