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Pennsylvania Ballet - 'Swan Lake'

Part II:  The Magic Continues at PAB

by Lori Ibay

June 5, 2004 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia

At the Metropolitan Opera House last week for American Ballet Theatre’s "Raymonda," the woman seated next to me (who lamented the fact that I was not old enough to have seen Rudolf Nureyev perform and who, to my delight, recounted her own experiences for me) explained that her subscription had given her tickets to "Swan Lake" but she had exchanged them for "Raymonda" instead. "I've seen 'Swan Lake' so many times, I could dance it myself," she said with a sigh. Although I probably haven't seen as many "Swan Lakes" as my seatmate, I had to nod in agreement.

Making my way towards the "Grand Old Lady of Broad Street" on Saturday evening, I remembered the woman, and thought, "But she certainly hasn't seen a 'Swan Lake' like this." I couldn't help but wonder what a seasoned balletomane would think of Christopher Wheeldon's re-telling; if it would meet the expectations that come automatically with a ballet as well-known and widely performed as "Swan Lake." And expectations were high at the Academy of Music as the lights dimmed on the second evening of Pennsylvania Ballet's performances of Wheeldon's new production. The theater was packed; the audience buzzed; the orchestra, conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron, began Tchaikovsky's familiar overture; and the stage was set for a repeat of the company's opening night triumph.

Then the magic began as it did the night before – light streamed in from an imaginary window and fell on the wall of the empty ballet studio as ballerinas wandered in, pausing for moments in time, burning classic images into the audience's memory. This night, the ensemble performed with the ease and confidence of having two performances under their belts, and each dancer moved with a spirit and a purpose (and with every hat in place). Only missing from the previous night was the shrill squeaking of pirouetting shoes against the stage.

In the pas de trois, apprentice Jermel Johnson impressed once again with his jaw dropping hangtime and with landings so soft you weren't sure when (or if) he actually touched the ground, and his partnering of principals Amy Aldridge and Martha Chamberlain was much smoother, with easy transitions from partner to partner. Chamberlain danced right on top of the music, capping off a solo with a series of clean, crisp beats.

In the transition from Act I in the ballet studio to Siegfried's dream at the lake in Act II, Meredith Rainey is a stylish, mysterious Von Rothbart. Sauntering in the shadows of the ballet studio while Siegfried believes he is alone, dressed in his top hat as the wealthy patron, he crosses behind the enormous mirror and emerges from the other side as the bald, sinister sorcerer in his tattered coat, only to disappear again.

Soloist James Ady played a more serious and contemplative Prince than Zachary Hench's Siegfried on opening night, but with as much elegance and grace. As Odette, Arantxa Ochoa showed a vulnerable and fragile side to the regal Swan Queen, with delicate, deliberate movements and nuances. The pair's partnering was unwavering, with wonderfully high, steady lifts, and the two danced an affectionate pas de deux, both wearing their emotions on their faces as well as expressing them through their dancing.

The women's ensemble was stunning once again, forming a sea of swans that breathed and rippled together as one. The Cygnets – Laura Bowman, Charity Eagens, Jessica Gattinella, and Jennifer Smith – were even tighter than on opening night, especially during the sequence of quick pas du chats.

In Act III, Martha Chamberlain, Jennifer Smith, Edward Cieslak, and Matthew Neenan danced an enthusiastic pas de quatre, with all four dancers looking as though they were enjoying themselves thoroughly. Amy Aldridge returned for her tantalizing Russian solo, and Tara Keating, James Ihde, and Brian Debes danced a fiery Spanish trio with feisty character and more ease than on opening night. Valerie Amiss and Alexei Charov were slightly choppy as the Czardas, but seemed more comfortable with the beat when the tempo picked up, and Tamara Hadley with Christine Cox, Jennifer Gall, Meredith Reffner, and Hawley Rowe closed with a rousing Can-Can.

As the suave Von Rothbart presented Odile to Siegfried, Ochoa made a striking transition from the humble, delicate Odette to the ostentatious, seductive Black Swan. Both Ady and Ochoa showed off their talents – Ady impressed with his powerful leaps and easy quadruple pirouettes, while Ochoa tossed double pirouettes into the famous inexhaustible series of fouettes. At the end of the act, when the real Swan Queen appeared behind the flaming mirror (and tonight the flames stayed away from the falling curtain), Ady's understated Siegfried showed more passion as he crumbled in the center of the stage, realizing his mistake.

In the final act, Ady and Ochoa danced tenderly in their last pas de deux as the ensemble floated smoothly around her like swans above water. As the scene transformed back to the ballet studio at the end of a performance and Siegfried slowly awoke from his dream, the curtain fell to enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Christopher Wheeldon found inspiration in the paintings of Degas, which were created in the same period when the original "Swan Lake" was performed. With a "no feathers and no castles" approach, Wheeldon wanted to the story to be told with less mime (and apparently less fog, less forest, and sans the medieval feel of the original) and through more dance and movement. In doing so, the ballet relies heavily on the dancers to convey the spirit of "Swan Lake," and PAB's performers – from the leading roles to the corps – valiantly rise to the challenge.

As I left the theater, I heard an audience member exclaim, "That was the best ballet I've ever seen!" She must have been about nine years old. Time alone will tell if Wheeldon's modern version of the ageless classic will become timeless itself, and if the expectations of both young audiences and mature audiences will be met. With tickets selling so quickly that the company had to add an extra performance (on Sunday, June 13th at 2pm), it seems as though ballet-goers are eager to decide for themselves.

Edited by Jeff.

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