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Pennsylvania Ballet

Christopher Wheeldon's 'Swan Lake'

Send in the Swans

by Lewis Whittington

June 4-13, 2004 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia

Philadelphia racehorse Smarty Jones may have been broken too soon last month to win the Triple Crown, but he brought pride to his city. Hedging some of his bets that same week, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon got that ballet warhorse "Swan Lake" galloping, breaking away and in the back stretch, similarly, choking.  

The commissioned Pennsylvania Ballet production received full critical attention from 100 dance journalists from around the world assembled for the Dance Critics Conference. PAB sent in the swans, and it proved a technical and emotional triumph, if not completely artistically satisfying.

It was nonetheless a grand finale to PAB's 40th anniversary season -- just as they are entering a new $10 million capital expansion -- with critical reaction ranging from raves (The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer) to near pans (The Washington Post). 

Wheeldon did not completely re-envision "Swan Lake" like Matthew Bourne, and it shows -- sometimes desperately in his referencing dance paintings of Edgar Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec images. Last year when Matthew Neenan conceived "Le Travail" (also inspired by the Degas), he told me. "If I get literal, I'll be screwed." Here, Wheeldon wisely knew he couldn't completely deconstruct a classic -- however mummified -- but he could decorate it.

Wheeldon keeps large chunks of the minted version of the ballet from Marius Petipa's and Lev Ivanov's 1895 collaboration. The potent ingredients of Petipa-Ivanov-Degas-Toulouse-Lautrec turns out to be an iconic souffle that many gobbled up, based on the lusty reception opening night, but for others it was an aesthetic grab bag that completely frustrates.

On the surface, Wheeldon keeps a teasing distance from the material and by doing so defuses expectations and masterfully draws us into his new world. Working equally well in classicism and neo-classicism, it is no wonder Wheeldon was called "ballet's hottest choreographer" by Time and has been named choreographer-in-residence at the New York City Ballet. 

He opens with the tableaux of working ballerinas circa 1900, on tour and rehearsing "Swan Lake" at a dance studio. Wheeldon paints a Franco-Prussian backdrop, intriguingly, in a pivotal era -- a time of social decadence and artistic revolutions. A huge distressed mirror that reflected the dancers (and was transparent at key moments) in flight proved a hypnotic and seductive abstraction. Adrianne Lobel's versatile rehearsal room was dramatic, but eventually proved claustrophobic against swan corps assembling en masse.  

Jean-Marc Puissant's costumes were dull to dazzling. The windmill dresses in the can-can number were just, well, plain -- unbefitting for even the cheapest courtesan on the stroll. But the Black Swan tutu, with diamond-strap collet, was drop dead gorgeous.  

Frequent Wheeldon collaborator Natasha Katz orchestrated the lights with an equal amount of subtlety and fireworks. The blue-gray hues cue the lake effect through the walls and windows as the studio transforms to an abstracted setting -- an airy proscenium on the waters. Wheeldon links this in time and space with the Degas set of paintings with Swan's ballerinas caught in realism at rehearsal. The ballet studio idea only provided posed Degas-ean pictures, which made the whole first act too precious.  

The elemental group formations state the palette Wheeldon wants to use. Tight classicism within narrative drama, comes across in Act I as merely pictorially clever, but his technical nuances are saved for later on. The trio with Martha Chamberlain and Amy Aldridge also showcased newcomer Jermel Johnson, who tossed off huge leaps with great extensions, but has a way to go with tight partnering of two seasoned ballerinas.

After Act I rehearsal -- which served as a lugubrious entr'acte-- the dancers filed out leaving principal dancer Zachary Hench picking up the crossbow and imagining himself as Prince Siegfried. He tries on his breast-coat as he fantasizes the drama under Tchaikovsky’s orchestral fireworks. Hench is a physically majestic Prince, dramatic and virile in his leaps and quietly attendant in his partnering. He tossed off thrilling fully extended jumps, but opening night jitters might have contributed to moments when his body pitched and his turns lacked crispness.

Hench partnered Riolama Lorenzo's Odette tenderly, working within the serviceable role. Nothing took away from the chemistry between Hench and Lorenzo, who is captivating as Odette-Odile, even when she was physically tentative in her opening solos amid the swans. In Act III's grand pas de deux, costumed in that drop dead, fade-to-pewter, black tutu, she was transcendent. Lorenzo was alternately thrilling as she paced out the music and hit every penchee arabesque, and breathtaking pumping out those 30 or so grand pirouettes. 

The second cast brought 20-year veteran Dede Barfield who clearly relished the more character-driven Odile, and paced it out so that every step was finished and fulfilled every technical demand. Wheeldon made interesting, even witty, slight variation in some of the more famous solo phrasing and posing. Alexei Borovik as Siegfried was equally effective in every aspect of the role, capping things off with powerful leaps and turns. 

It was reported by many that Arantxa Ochoa and James Ady were all fireworks for their opening night, but later performances were off. But even with off-days, Wheeldon's exacting details draw out the flesh and blood dancer like the great silent filmmakers. This showed glaringly on a Saturday matinee performance with principals Ochoa and Ady transcendent in their roles during the operatic moments, but unfocused during many of the quieter ones. And, atypically, the steely Ochoa teetered trying to get through the grand pirouettes (Ady, too, struggled with turns) and had passages where the movement was so minimal that she looked frozen.  

A ponderous Act II introduces Von Rothbart (three primal characterizations from PAB's versatile dancers Alexei Charov and David Krensing, as well as MVP soloist Meredith Rainey), appearing along with the jarring image of the turbulent waters through the windows in the studio walls, lording over and menacing the Swans for reasons unknown. 

But, Wheeldon's design and plot machinations are streamlined, and he grabs onto the story as it as always classically worked. This becomes gloriously apparent when Laura Bowman, Charity Eagens, Jessica Gatinella and Jennifer Smith make the Cygnets a technical marvel. Here Wheeldon crystallized perfection with quick pacing and razor-sharp precision. Similar sharpness highlighted the Pas de Quatre with Chamberlain, Jennifer Smith, Edward Cieslak and Matthew Neenan.

Overall, Wheeldon made intelligent choices but should consider shortening Act I and strengthening the divertissements in Act III, although the 3rd cast enlivened the Czardas gypsy dance (wonderfully danced at a Saturday matinee by Natalia Charova and Alexei Charov). The Can-Can can be campier, or at least raunchier; the Spanish number could use more fire.

Nothing, however, could take away from the entrance of the Black Swan. That contrast comes with the entrance, through the mirror, of Odile. Performance level among the corps had technically thrilling moments of unison and individual clarity. Here and throughout, Wheeldon's detailing and transitional phrases are often delightful, but, like many dance makers before him, he couldn't choreograph himself out of a wooden opening or anti-climatic ending.  

After a limp jete run in Act I, the men acquitted themselves more honorably in Act III as society gentlemen playing to Amy Aldridge's strip tease, showing Wheedon at his choreographic best. She peels off layers of her dress down to black silk lingerie and stockings, then in a dance that is allusive to gypsy lineage, she floats gorgeous jetes, flying around the men. In the words of the great Gypsy Rose Lee, "Leave 'em wanting more, then don't give it to 'em." It will be interesting to see the changes that are made in future incarnations of PAB's new "Swan Lake."

Edited by Lori Ibay

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