writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

In the Realm of Ideas

Swan Lake
Pennsylvania Ballet
Academy of Music
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Friday, June 4, 2004

by George Jackson
copyright © 2004 by  George Jackson
published June 8, 2004

Christopher Wheeldon's ideas for Swan Lake keep you at the edge of your seat. His very first thoughts are about Tchaikovsky's music. Even before the curtain rises, one is aware of the orchestra's definite phrasing and distinct tempi. The score is alive, it breathes and must be dealt with, not relied upon as a crutch. The first view of the stage astonishes. It is a living picture based on the luminous ballet paintings of Edgar Degas rather than a conventional Russian Swan Lake immersed in the mellow pallet of late romantic light and shade. As the scene is peopled and plot lines germinate, is Wheeldon more engrossed by the metamorphosis of rehearsal into performance than by the predicaments of the fictional or historical characters, be they Rothbart or Degas's abonné? It is fascinating to see Wheeldon shape passages of choreography "after Marius Petipa and Lev Invanov" into coherence with dances of his own devising. One is kept going to the very end by questions and surprises. I could hardly wait to see whether the lovers, Odette and Siegfried, would live or die together, or forever be parted.

Wheeldon's ideas hover about the nature of reality and the role of imagination, but their realization was uneven. It was a brilliant achievement to establish the backstage and onstage worlds of the 19th Century ballet through Degas's eyes. No less successful was the bold transition from rehearsal to performance. Wheeldon's own choreography and his molding of Petipa/Ivanov passages* have strong impetus. The counterpoint between the action of the swan corps and the adagio of the principals in Act 2 is dynamic. Throughout, and not just for the swans, Wheeldon makes elaborate, even florid use of the dancers' arms. However, he tends to eschew architecture of absolute beauty in favor of propulsion. Without a huge company to call on he can't, of course, achieve the wave upon wave of classical dancing that emerged in Pyotr Gusev's staging of Act 2 (for Moscow's Stanislavsky company). Even making allowances, some of Wheeldon's classicism seemed a bit dry, not just in the group dances but in his conception of Odette/Odile as a ballerina rather than a character. All the passion is segregated into Prince Siegfried's role.

In Act 3, to give the Black Swan deception a context, Wheeldon's version dispenses with Siegfried's candidate brides but not with the "gala" divertissements. First, in the place where Ashton's famous insert—a pas de quatre—ended up, is a classical foursome. It has too much parallel work. Then there's a Russian dance that becomes a strip tease, an ironic Spanish trio, a Hungarian czardas, and a cancan to the Neapolitan music. The czardas, overly cute, fails to make a point. The cancan almost works, but needs other music to support a climax.

The lakeside Act 4 is far from being just a variation on Act 2. In dancing and feeling it is the most dramatic of the four acts, even a bit melodramatic. Some movement vectors were dynamic, yet one major grouping seemed not just dry but heavy, with the swans agglutinated into a lump. The ballet's ending is tricky. It worked on opening night but might easily go awry.

Pennsylvania Ballet looked its best in this production. Zachary Hench handled Siegfried's emotions and dancing convincingly but Riolama Lorenzo, a competent young soloist, isn't yet the ballerina needed for so singular an Odette/Odile as conceived by Wheeldon. Tamara Hadley, ballerina emerita, was the apt Queen and Mother figure. The orchestra needed more rehearsal on opening night but, conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron, had spirit. The designers—Adrianne Lobel for scenery, Jean-Marc Puissant for costumes, Natasha Katz for lighting—achieved wonders with simple means.

* Traditional step passages are principally the Act 1 pas de trois, much of Act 2, Act 3's Black Swan pas de deux, some formations in Act 4.

First:  Arantxa Ochoa as Odette-Odile in a sea of swans in Pennsylvania Ballet's new Swan Lake by Christopher Wheeldon. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Second:  Riolama Lorenzo as Odette-Odile in Pennsylvania Ballet's new Swan Lake by Christopher Wheeldon. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.
Riolama Lorenzo and Zachary Hench in Pennsylvania Ballet's new Swan Lake by Christopher Wheeldon. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 21
June 8, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by George Jackson



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