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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Deep Waters:
A Dangerous, Thrilling Swan Lake

Swan Lake
American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
June 15, 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published June 14, 2004

The story of Swan Lake may be old hat, but when marvelous heads are wearing old hats they renew them. One such head belongs to Veronika Part, an ABT soloist who joined the company in 2002, after dancing principal roles at the Kirov, where she had been promoted to soloist rank in 1998 two years after entering that company from the Vaganova Choreographic Institute. On the strength of her rendition of Odette-Odile last night, which seems to be her Odette-Odile last night, which seems to be her second performance of the role in the current ABT production (ABT’s Web site notes a matinee performance in Chicago, in late March), she is clearly one of the greatest theater artists that organization has ever employed. Part is a big talent in many respects. Tall, sturdy, with large feet and a wide back, she possesses a physique that, in other times and places, would have made her casting in Petipa ballerina roles quite unlikely. Her face is also large and wide-boned: a huge, beautiful, old-fashioned stage face that catches a great deal of light. Part’s technique is adequate to classical ballerina roles, yet not cutting edge. Nearly every other ABT principal ballerina has more steely point work. Gillian Murphy is far more brilliant, Paloma Herrera and Irina Dvorovenko are far tougher and more perseverant, Nina Ananiashvili is far more commanding, Amanda McKerrow and Ashley Tuttle are far more nuanced.

However, it’s what Part does with the technique she possesses that makes her absolutely unparalleled in this company: her dancing is a torrent of artistic choices—physical, dramatic, and musical—and they can be so unpredictable that an observer who has seen hundreds of performances of dozens of Swan Lakes is on the edge of the seat, wondering how the ballet is going to turn out. The last ballerina I saw at the Met who performs in a similar fashion is the Kirov’s Uliana Lopatkina, a dancer with a very different physique and imagination yet who also projects the effect of spontaneous choice as she goes, as if she were encountering every situation for the first time and has to negotiate every moment as though she were trying to cross a busy intersection at which there were no traffic signals. Part is a natural adagio dancer, and there were moments in Act II when she slowed herself down so much that she risked losing the audience’s concentration. Even so, her Odette-Odile is ballet dancing of a dangerous, adventuresome, thrilling, and, ultimately, highly communicative order, as Part’s standing ovation and roars of audience approval confirmed. During her bows, most of which were taken on stage with the entire cast, Part looked both radiant and embarrassed, as if she had just confessed some great secret. Yet the only thing she revealed by turning herself inside-out for the public is that, since joining ABT, her lights have been hidden under a bushel.

For Part’s Siegfried, ABT cast principal Marcelo Gomes, a tall, vigorous, handsome dancer with a big jump and a huge, lunging reach. Gomes is also a rock-solid and solicitous partner, and, given Part’s physical instrument, he’s probably one of very few male dancers in ABT who could work with her securely; indeed, his partnering was wonderful, and a key to her success. Yet, as far as stage personality is concerned, the Part-Gomes partnership is still a work in progress. Gomes, who projects a cosmopolitan sense of ease and social assurance, is frequently cast in princely roles across the repertory, and he certainly possesses the virtuosity to put them over. However, he’s not naturally a ballet prince in the sense of aristocratic bearing and reserve; he’s naturally enthusiastic and outgoing as a performer, and his princes always feel a little artificial, a little stifling for him. He’s much more powerful on stage when he can cut loose, as in William Forsythe’s workwithinwork, the third Sailor in the Fancy Free of Jerome Robbins, the pimp figure in Paul Taylor’s Black Tuesday, or The Man in the House Opposite of Antony Tudor’s Pillar of Fire.

Gomes has a naturally antic streak as a dancer that is really brought out in situations when humor and an element of darkness come into play. A natural for von Rothbart, he hasn’t quite learned how to convert his demonic energy into an engine for a hero, as Humphrey Bogart learned to do when he made the transition from playing villains to white hats. Last night, he chose to follow Part’s lead in characterization by using his head a lot, tipping it back, in her manner, to indicate both his wonder at the swans in the sky and to cue the audience that he was under the spell of ineffable, nonmaterialistic concerns, which at first, made him look like her competitor or her brother. He also adopted some of her spontaneity: in Act I, he was having a perfectly marvelous time at his birthday party—not a cloud on the ego’s horizon—until his mom, who happened to be the queen, reminded him that he had to marry, which threw him into so pure a funk that one wanted to run up and say, “There, there. Have I got a girl for you! Someone really worth killing yourself over.” But, like many 21st-century princes, he had to jumpstart his arm into swearing true love for Odette, and that instant of reluctance to fully straighten his elbow in the mime for “I swear” was not a point in favor of his acting.

On the other hand, his Siegfried was able to swear true love to the enchantress, Odile, with the stiff-armed alacrity of a first-grader waving to the teacher that he knew the right answer call on him, please! (Part’s Odile was like another first-grader who recognizes this earnestness and, absent any empathy whatsoever, tortures Siegfried with it.) During much of Act I, I wondered whether Siegfried’s Benno, Gennady Saveliev, who, physically, wouldn’t be Part’s match, would be the better prince for her Odette in terms of his deportment, projection of interior assurance, and elegant reserve. (His performance in the prince role in George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial, earlier in the season, registered exactly the right marriage of high imagination and understatement.) Yet, finally, Saveliev was better here as Benno. For the deeper elements of Gomes’s stage presence teased out surprises from the ballerina. The Act II lakeside pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried, which Part and Gomes have only partially carved into a finished concept, achieved something I haven’t seen for a very long time: a quality of erotic passion in their increasing intimacy that gave a glimpse of the enchantress in the enslaved and of the enchanter in the callow youth. Suddenly, about two thirds of the way through, it was like seeing Hagar unchained from her inhibitions and the Man in the House Opposite win the jackpot. The audience, realizing that they had been plunged into truly deep waters, went wild, to the extent that, as I walked into the subway, I heard people whistling Tchaikovsky’s score as if they’d just seen a Broadway musical. Now, for the ballet, that’s wild. 

Kevin McKenzie’s production—which, on previous seasons, I’d found fussy and over-elaborated in its designs, yet strangely denuded in its lack of attendants for the royals—looked rather good this time to me, as I’m now a veteran of Christopher Wheeldon’s new Swan Lake for Pennsylvania Ballet, in which Siegfried not only doesn’t swear love to Odette at all but achieves a happy ending, too, because, as it turns out, everything was just a bad dream in a dance studio anyway. At ABT, I’m still jarred by the lack of musical transition in the Third Act between the Russian dance—in which the enchanter seduces the spurned princesses seriatum and then, with a Nureyev arrogance, hops into the empty throne beside the beside the queen—and the entrance of Siegfried and Odile for the Black Swan pas de deux.  However, Carlos Molina’s enchanter, in his Caravaggio beard, accomplished the job with considerable panache, and the moment at the end of the act, when the enchanter hides Odile’s departure with his cape, then drops the cape to show the devastated prince that, hey, here’s mommy dearest, had a suitable, muted horror. Kirk Peterson’s Tutor-Master of Ceremonies was hale and hearty, a kind of Henry Geldzahler of the Garter. One moment I found particularly absorbing was the point in Act I when Peterson’s Tutor, observing, from a point way across the stage, Siegfried’s distress at his mother’s command to marry, walks a few steps forward in evident thoughtfulness. He can’t make the boy’s lot better; what will happen to him now? It’s a lot to convey in two walking steps.

The production’s Bourmeister-like prologue, during the overture, in which the enchanter seduces the human girl, Odette, with his seigneur manifestation, and then, in his swamp-thing manifestation (intently performed by Isaac Stappas in horns, scaled skin, and padded thighs) enslaves her, continues to seem irrelevant to the ballet, despite its function as a shorthand to the backstory—and also, in its Sovietsky-style acrobatic lifts, limited and somewhat misleading. (Swan Lake was conceived under Tsars, an aspect preserved in David Blair’s production for ABT from the 1960’s and referred to, at least, in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s ABT production from the 1980’s.) McKenzie’s choreography has awkwardnesses, as well as charms, and although I think I can understand the reason that the trajectory for the disturbed swans in Act IV is horizontally slotted rather than, as in Petipa-Ivanov or Ashton, expanded into parures, it still seems diminished. The outsized projections of the glowing moon in Act II and the rising sun in Act IV are, in every sense, over the top, although this week—when the entire world could observe the tiny inkblot that was the actual planet of Venus eclipse the actual sun that dwarfed it—these theatrical ideas were lent an unusual timeliness.

The ABT orchestra, under conductor Ormsby Wilkins, served the score reasonably well until the last quarter of the evening, when the oom-pah pulse of the waltzes dominated the melody line and the enthusiastic horns tried on a von Rothbart sound themselves, overtaking the cantilena-like voices of other instrumental sections.

First, Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in ABT's production of Swan Lake, Act II. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Second, Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in ABT's production of Swan Lake, Act II. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Third, Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in ABT's production of Swan Lake, Act III. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 22
June 16, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by  Mindy Aloff
revised June 17, 2004


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last updated on June 14, 2004