Ripples Upon the Surface -- Swan Lake's Tale of Two Cities
by S.E. Arnold
June 2004 -- Boston and Philadelphia
The numbing spell of the work-a-day world’s monotonous refrains one endured until freed by the Saturday matinee, May 15, of Boston Ballet’s "Swan Lake." Now whether swayed by thirst alone (it had been weeks since one last drank the wine of ballet) or some other confluence of expectations, the performance of Sarah Lamb as Odette nevertheless immersed this viewer in a flood of moments that either illuminated or explained the music. In Act II, Lamb became the very avatar of musicality and like some pagan divinity descended, and one was possessed.
That possession, now alas a memory- a precious crop of fragile yields indeed- granted the power to slow time. The attentiveness brought by this state of mind keenly felt, for instance, the steady breath or drawing motion- as if she were playing an oboe or violin - that Lamb applied over the entire count of held or tied notes, drove her arabesque penchees or developpes. The careful flow of her stretch, no matter what the tempo, made the punctuation for those phrases that ended, for example, with a flourish of wrists or arms, seem musically correct as well as dramatically potent.
Yet such was the rush of one’s Orphic possession that it often set one loose in a swirling rather than a steady stream of time. One passed, for instance, from noting even the tiniest of jumps or beats or cuts, to a fatigue brought by sentient overload. In this over wrought state of mind, one wondered, “What, if ballerinas could fly, would the Act II coda look like danced on the ceiling?” Although the phenomena of being one with the music or ballet is a common one, it nevertheless urged a wakeful quest for the sources of “Swan Lake’s” affective power. One entered, then and perhaps on a fool’s errand, the threshold opened onto Tchaikovsky’s music by Lamb’s performance.
Given the vagueness of the goal, however, a rusting compass, and a want for navigational skills, one’s quest went everywhere and nowhere all at once. Happily, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake” ran one’s foundering quest aground and thereby provided something solid to stand on. In fact, it was the rough ground of the Overture’s dynamics that brought one’s quest to a sudden stop or focus.
Under the baton of Jonathan McPhee, for example, the orchestra of the Boston Ballet delivered the setting of Odette’s twilight refuge and its somber mood with barely a ripple. With Stravinsky-ian correctness, McPhee portrayed the smooth and reflective surfaces of a silent and secret lake at dusk. In contrast, under the baton of Beatrice Jona Affron, the orchestra of the Pennsylvania Ballet revealed the poetry embedded in the familiar melodies of the Overture. As if pronouncing words, the breathy contrast between load and soft and the emphasis on weak as well as strong beats gave the minor key of the Overture a bluesy flavor. In this way, the musical decision of whether to steal or not to steal time, the use of ‘rubato’, underscored the conceptions of “Swan Lake” which their Overtures prefaced.
Rubato names the variations in performance to the note values and tempo markings written in the score. Composers such as Tchaikovsky, however, sometimes wrote them in. And, as a performing technique, rubato is often used to mark changes between sections -- i.e. the last measures of the Siegfried-startles-Odette scene are slowed without the score’s direction to do so before the mime scene begins. This slowing over and above the practical demands of the ballet is reinforces the sense of arrival and resolution audible in the music and visually in the ballet’s choreography. Additionally, this brief scene illustrates the rubato-ized sensibility that frequently wants to slow down on descending passages or to speed up (and get louder) on ascending passages. The steady state of tempo and restraint of dynamic emphasis heard, for example, in the Boston Ballet Overture underscores the public and traditional aspects of Nissinen’s “Swan Lake.” While the varying and dynamic tempo highlights the emotional aspects of the Overture, supporting the personal, indeed Cartesian, quality of Wheeldon’s choreography.
Historically, the use of ‘rubato’ is synonymous with the 19th century in general and with Tchaikovsky in particular. In this sense, the performance given by the Pennsylvania Ballet orchestra echoes a common 19th century practice while typically, if not the accepted norm presently, that of the Boston Ballet orchestra reflects a rival and parallel practice. The sense of tubing, so to speak, on the rapids and eddies of musical time and the enhancement of feeling that play with time means to provide successfully exposes one of the sources of “Swan Lake’s” affective power. Another source certainly is the ‘divine’ dancer whoever that might be, whose performance takes possession of us and whose “beauty” in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “serenely disdains to destroy us.”
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