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Boston Ballet

Ballet Preview by S.E. Arnold

The words ‘silly’ and ‘stupid’ often hissed scornfully at “Swan Lake." Yet, the work endures. And, gaseous claims, now measured as a truth as verifiable as the atomic weight of hydrogen, of the ballet’s original failure nevertheless flame in the heat of the evidence given by R. John Wiley in his book Tchaikovsky’s Ballets. “At a time,” writes Wiley, “when new ballets normally received no more than eighteen performances Swan Lake’s Moscow run of 41 and of three productions in six years, is proof of the ballet’s success and the interest it created.”

Indeed.  As Stephen Cobbett Steinberg writes in “Why a Swan?”, “since its 1877 Moscow premiere, Swan Lake has been presented in at least 155 versions by 115 companies based in 25 different countries- a daunting record that few other nineteenth century dance classics can equal.”

In May, the Boston Ballet will end its 2003-2004 season with Mikko Nissinen’s own production of "Swan Lake." In a conversation held between acts of "Lady of the Camellias," Nissinen revealed his plans and thoughts on "Swan Lake": “It’s going to be my staging,” he told this writer, “with additional choreography, but it is based on the Petipa-Ivanov version. I did quite a bit of research, not just recently, but over the years, of all of the productions of "Swan Lake." I evaluated them by asking a bunch of questions and by what felt right and what didn’t. When I felt that something had changed too much- that it had lost its validity- that I would redo those sections and try to get into the feeling of what it was originally.”

“What stopped being valid for you?” Nissinen:  “'Swan Lake' traveled in a couple of major ways. One was in Russia, what I call the Maryinsky-Kirov-Maryinsky and Bolshoi deviations and the other route was through Petipa’s assistant, Nicholas Sergeyev, who went to England and staged 'Swan Lake' [based on his ‘rude’ stenochoreographic notes] for the Royal Ballet. And from there all the other versions had their beginning. And, if you understand how they traveled, and who touched them and how, then you understand much more.”

To illustrate the possibilities of change, Nissinen cites the example of "Sleeping Beauty." “A little thing with 'Sleeping Beauty' people usually forget,” he observed, “is that the 'Sleeping Princess' [Diaghilev’s revival of "Sleeping Beauty," which premiered at the Alhambra Theatre in London in 1921] had choreography added by Nyjinska and was partly re-orchestrated by Stravinsky.” Additionally, Nissinen noted the stylistic differences between dancers in the late nineteenth century and the present; and in particular that“the Kirov tends to over-stylize. I want a little more purity from the Swans.” And to insure that purity, Nissinen is bringing in Lola de Avila from Spain to coach the Swans.

Nissinen also seeks to ‘purify’ the formal aspects of the "Swan Lake":  “The story,” he went on to say, “has to be told very clearly. I wanted to do it in two acts, but couldn’t because of the scenery change- the third and fourth act is so massive. [Nissinen is using the sets he ‘inherited’ from the Boston Ballet’s earlier production of the ballet.] But, I’ve paired down the fourth act to eighteen minutes. The main thing about the fourth act is that you have to finish telling the story between Siegfreid and Odette. And, the second act is such a pearl of classical choreography and classicism that if you try to put another ‘white act’ next to it, it will never work. I find that to be the biggest problem when I watch the Kirov or the Royal Ballet. They have another massive ‘white act’ that goes on and on and on. It is a little pointless. So, I decided that I am going to be a little more intimate. The emotional content of the fourth act is quite different.”

So, the second act is more or less intact even to Cyril Beaumont? Nissenen:  “Pretty much.” And, what of the characters and characterization in "Swan Lake"? Is there a Joker? Nissenen:  “No.”

What is Siegfreid like? Is he, for example, the self-absorbed youth that cannot tell the difference between good and evil, whether they look alike or not? Nissenen: “No, I usually don’t like that sort of portrayal of the aristocracy- empty headed and sleepy. He is good boy, whose growing up well educated. He comes of age and is feeling the weight of that responsibility. He enjoys life like everybody else, but he is different. He understands and accepts his responsibility. He knows that he has to marry, but he is not really in love with anybody. No one really sparks him until he meets Odette at the lakeside."

So, his sudden love for Odette mirrors Romeo’s for Juliet? Nissenen:  When Odette tells him her dilemma, he is so passionately taken by her situation and mesmerized by her beauty that he says, “I’ll save you!” And, that is what gets the ball rolling."

Does Siegfreid, like a petulant little boy, pull the wings off Rothbart?

Nissenen:  “No. And, I am also suggesting, and I am not putting this in writing anywhere, in the fourth act that each one of us has two sides. [Nissenen later gave permission for him to be quoted--ed.]  That part of what took place was the Prince’s own dark side. His sub-conscious probably played a little trick on him. So, we have a fairy tale with Rothbart and all of this, but there are two sides of an individual at the same time. There is a little bit of Rothbart in Siegfreid and a little bit of Siegfreid in Rothbart. My Rothbart is going to be way more beautiful and evil in a different way- not so much in a grotesque way. In the fourth act, I’ll have them do the same steps back to back or opposite that is how the fight is going to be. They are going to echo each other’s movement dynamic.”

What is the outcome, does, for example, the Lake a la Gotterdammerung overflow its banks thus washing the lovers and all away?

Nissenen:  “You know, I’ve thought about it so many times. My personal favorite ending probably would be to stop the story before the women become women again. Ideally, I would like to stop where Odette returns to the Lake with all of the other swans. Siegfreid follows and drowns. But that’s not going to take place here because I am inheriting sets and costumes, and in order to make that happen here it would look like the story came from nowhere. This is a much more contemporary way to look at it. So, Odette goes and throws herself off a cliff and Siegfreid follows. And they are united in eternal love.”


Lola de Avila, Guest Ballet Mistress

Lola de Avila began her ballet training in Zaragoza, Spain under the tutelage of Maria de Avila. She went on to study in England, Germany, and France with Anton Dolin, Nora Kiss, Leon Woizkowski, Victor Gsovsky, and Rosella Hoghtower. De Avila danced with Royal Chamber Ballet of Spain, Ballet of Madrid, and Ballet Del Teatro De La Zarzuela. In 1978, she was named director of the School of Victor Ullate in Brussels and guest taught in Mudra. She was then appointed, in 1980, to Ballet Mistress with the National Ballet of Spain and by 1982, became Associate Director and Chairman of the School; a position she held until 1988. Soon after, de Avila opened her own school of ballet in Madrid, and was also named Director of the Maria de Avila Youth Ballet. In 1991, de Avila began guest teaching at San Francisco Ballet and in 1992, accepted Director Helgi Tomasson’s invitation to serve as Associate Director, providing leadership for the teachers in the School. De Avila has guest taught as Ballet Mistress with several international ballet companies and schools including San Francisco Ballet, Teatro Maggio Musicale Florentino, Gran Ballet de Ginebra, Ballet de Montecarlo, Ballet de Biarritz, Ballet Victor Ullate, and San Francisco Ballet School. While in Florence, Italy, de Avila staged Chopinianna for Teatro Maggio Musicale Florentino. Each year de Avila returns to San Francisco Ballet to rehearse various classical ballets.

Edited by Jeff.

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