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Pennsylvania Ballet - 'Swan Lake'

Part I:  Christopher Wheeldon's World Premiere is a Triumph

by Lori Ibay

June 4, 2004 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia

Pennsylvania Ballet has not performed "Swan Lake" for thirteen years, but the company has never danced a "Swan Lake," or any production for that matter, quite like this one. At a budget of $1.15 million, Christopher Wheeldon's new production is the largest and most expensive ever created by Pennsylvania Ballet. With scenic design by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant, lighting by Natasha Katz, projections by James Buckhouse, and the classic score of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Wheeldon creates a "Swan Lake" for a new generation, an undertaking he describes as "resetting an old diamond heirloom into a contemporary setting." And without a doubt, Wheeldon's new production is a gem.

Set in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, the scene opens on an empty ballet studio as ballerinas wander in, clad in rehearsal clothes, hair hanging loose. As the dancers pull up their hair, tie their shoes, and stretch their legs, they pause for moments at a time, creating Degas-like paintings frozen in real time. The arrival of a wealthy patron in a dark coat and top hat adds even more to the feeling that you are watching a Degas that has come to life, giving the ballet a feeling of timelessness, even in just its opening moments.

The entire first act takes place in a ballet studio with the company rehearsing for its production of "Swan Lake." An enormous mirror looms in the corner; the dancers stretch, socialize, and pull props from a wicker chest; a seamstress sits in the back sewing; and the shadowy Abonne observes from the side. Jeffrey Gribler, the ever-comical Ballet Master and Siegfried's tutor, presides over the corps' rehearsal, and although the dancers are dressed in gray and white rehearsal clothes rather than the lively party costumes we are used to seeing at Siegfried's birthday party, the ensemble brings wonderful energy and color to Wheeldon's lively choreography.

Pennsylvania Ballet's corps has always excelled at smoothly shifting through clean formations, and Act I – which Wheeldon has embellished with original choreography – is no exception, as the ensemble flowed seamlessly from ever-changing lines to circles to diagonals. The men, especially, showed off their athleticism, reaching superb height with perfectly synchronized grand jetes done in a circle formation – and thus demonstrated how exciting simplicity can be when executed with both spirit and precision.

The meaty pas de trois was tackled by principal dancers Amy Aldridge and Martha Chamberlain and apprentice Jermel Johnson. Aldridge bounced daintily through her solo while Chamberlain seemed to be slightly behind the beat. Johnson showed beautiful line and awesomely high jumps; however, he seemed slightly confined in the space between the studio walls, and the difficult partnering, with quick transitions between his two partners, was slightly choppy.

As the rehearsal ends and the dancers dissipate, Zachary Hench, a spirited prince with flowing, wavy hair, remains in the studio after the others have left, fascinated with the crossbow prop the Queen presents to Prince Siegfried. Alone, except for the creepy Abonne who later transforms into the evil Von Rothbart (played by Alexei Charov) lurking in the shadows, rippling waves on the walls of the studio transform into birds as he falls into a dream. Hench plays a boyish and curious prince, whose body movements and gestures express his emotions. He is surprised and stunned when he meets Odette, danced by soloist Riolama Lorenzo for her first time. Lorenzo's long neck and limbs and endless extension made her a regal and elegant Swan Queen, and with Hench, the pair danced the classic white swan pas de deux smoothly and gracefully.

The women's corps was nothing short of breathtaking – they flooded the transformed walls of the studio in one strong, continuous wave that was danced with such exact angles and hardly a stray arm position. It seemed as though you were having sixteen visions of the same one swan. Wheeldon's choreography and staging brings out the best in the women's ensemble – lines stay perfectly straight as they rotate, cross each other, and fluidly melt into circles and waves. The Cygnets -- Laura Bowman, Charity Eagens, Jessica Gattinella, and Jennifer Smith -- danced in quick crisp synchrony that drew shouts from the audience.

In Act III, the ballet studio has been transformed with velvet draperies and glittering chandeliers for a gala celebration of the opening of the company's production of "Swan Lake." Siegfried, still reeling from his dream of the lake, stands to the side as he observes gentlemen patrons in long-tailed tuxedos mingling with the young ballerinas. Martha Chamberlain, Jennifer Smith, Edward Cieslak, and Matthew Neenan entertained the guests with a spirited pas de quatre, with Chamberlain now flawless and exuding her usual confidence.

The sinister von Rothbart, in the form of the eerie patron, arrives, bringing an unusual entourage of dancers. Amy Aldridge danced a seductive Russian solo with swinging hips that mesmerized the gentleman patrons, who stripped layer after layer away from her floor-length evening gown, revealing a tight bodice and short black skirt as the tempo picked up. Tara Keating, James Ihde, and Brian Debes performed with character and flavor in a spicy Spanish trio that had Keating lifted off the floor, swung around, and caught by her legs. Czardas Valerie Amiss and Meredith Rainey added jollity to the celebration with a romping, heel-clicking dance, and Christine Cox, Jennifer Gall, Meredith Reffner, and Hawley Rowe with Tamara Hadley closed with a colorful Can-Can full of cartwheels, fan kicks, and swooshing skirts.

As the party disperses, Von Rothbart presents Siegfried with the seductive Odile, and the real fireworks begin. In the classic Black Swan pas de deux, Lorenzo was as seductive and taunting as she was elegant, and Hench showed boyish naivete as he is tricked into believing he is seeing Odette. Having just joined PAB as a principal in April 2004, Hench made a lasting first impression on the audience with his high-flying leaps. Though at first he seemed slightly off balance with his pirouettes, while the audience was still marveling at Lorenzo's quick fouettes (twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty-six…) Hench began a series of unwavering grand pirouettes a la seconde that erased previous impressions of unsteadiness. At the height of the excitement, Von Rothbart reveals the true Odette with fantastic drama as she appears through the giant mirror, now translucent and enveloped with flames.

In the final act, the back wall of the studio has disappeared as Siegfried returns to the lake in search of Odette. The swans and Cygnets return, beautifully framing Siegfried and Odette's last tender pas de deux as the lovers are momentarily reunited. After the swans turn against their captor and destroy him, Odette and the swans depart, leaving Siegfried agonizing alone. He is not alone for long however, as the walls of the studio slowly come together, the looming mirror returns, and the ballerinas of the company wander into the studio, loosening their hair and still dressed in their swan costumes, having just finished the company's performance of "Swan Lake." The prince looks around bewilderingly, unable to distinguish his dream from reality.

Christopher Wheeldon's re-telling of "Swan Lake" blends the classical elements and choreography of Petipa and Ivanov with exciting original choreography and a modern vision, and in doing so he has succeeded in creating a "Swan Lake" for a new generation.  Despite minor opening night glitches (a stage so squeaky it sometimes made you cringe, a costume malfunction, and flames projected on the falling curtain as well as the looming mirror), the standing ovations and multiple curtain calls on opening night demonstrated the audience's appreciation of Wheeldon's triumphant premiere.

Edited by Jeff.

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