"Swan Lake"
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
June 28 , 2007

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2007 by Leigh Witchel          

In ballet, how you tell the story is the story. Narrative elements, such as a lake, a swan and a mother’s tears matter, but form is metaphor and meaning. We learn as much about Odette’s predicament in “Swan Lake” from how she uses her back as we do from her mime, and as much about the swans and their world from how they softly chug in arabesque passing the lovers in the adagio. Pinch hitting at Wednesday night’s performance for Ethan Steifel, David Hallberg’s pure arabesque line explained more about his Siegfried than any narrative could.

Hallberg is among perhaps three principal males at American Ballet Theatre who could be called danseur nobles. The others, no matter how good, have a different body type; calling Herman Cornejo a danseur noble is akin to calling him blond. Hallberg has not only the proportions, he has the stillness of a danseur noble. His legs are calm in extension; they don’t have nervous energy or restless motion. He is young and only attained principal rank last year; his Siegfried isn’t fully formed but the ingredients are there.

Kevin McKenzie’s version of “Swan Lake” casts the prince in Act I as a regular guy with his buddies doing things regular guys do, such as entrechat sixes and shooting swans with crossbows. It isn’t a very princely conception, but it does assist Hallberg, a long, lean and pale dancer who could be effete if miscoached, to fill out in our minds. He danced with Gillian Murphy, who looked well-drilled and coached as both Odette and Odile. The more she used her back in the lakeside acts the more eloquent she was, but Murphy’s Odette still strikes me as external; all the right moves but none of them coming from her own impulses.

Murphy’s technical prowess and propensity towards allegro movement make her a more natural Odile, and she did a variation with knockout triple turns en dehors to double attitude turns. Alas, this is McKenzie’s sleazy version of Act III. Everyone is vulgarized by it, and Murphy plowed through prodigious and ugly multiple fouettés in her coda. Even Hallberg was having technical trouble and not landing cleanly. He dealt with the plot by getting wild eyed and hysterical, looking at his four potential brides as if they were monsters. He may have done it to ramp up his emotional state to a point where he could believe in the suicide at the end, but he didn’t pace himself. His physical and emotional states were the same; he was running out of gas.

A few dancers, most notably Marcelo Gomes, have been able to make something out of the purple half of McKenzie’s dual role of von Rothbart. Gennadi Saveliev unfortunately looked more like a pimp than even the typical jokes made about the part. He seemed harassed in his interminable solo, as if he were running late to seduce yet another princess. Craig Salstein managed to make the vulgar Neapolitan dance in Act III even more so than usual.

If it isn’t already painfully apparent, I’m no fan of McKenzie’s “Swan Lake.” I’ve complained loud and long about it and refer you to previous griping; it only gets worse with repeated viewing. There are always bright spots. The Act I pas de trois was graced with Jared Matthews’ sharp fast turns, clean tours and stretchy jumps, Hee Seo’s elegant lines and large, bright smiling face, and Melissa Thomas’ unforced warmth. The “Big Swans” in Act II were the luxury (if mismatched) casting of Veronika Part and Stella Abrera, but the swan corps was messy in some of the dances. In Act III, the Czardas was led with hauteur by Karin Ellis-Wentz and Alexei Agoudine; Maria Bystrova is marvelous in the Spanish dance but will they ever let her do anything else?

An arabesque is worth a thousand words. An arabesque done in unison by the corps at the right time in the right way can tell us everything we need to know. McKenzie seems to have no sensitivity to this. He only sees plot — and not skillfully — inserting confused narrative where there was once clear metaphor. He also doesn’t know how to make a dance for the corps de ballet and choreographs as if it’s the same as creating an exercise across the floor for ballet class. Instead of showing us the corps en masse, he uses dancers in twos and threes. Perhaps it’s to create little solos and make the dancers happy to be featured, but it diminishes the unison power — and meaning — of the corps de ballet. But McKenzie has never understood that about a classical corps de ballet and from the looks of it, never will. It’s called the corps de ballet because it dances together.

Photo on front page:
Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky in "Swan Lake." Photo: Gene Schiavone

Volume 5, No. 26
July 1, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Leigh Witchel

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