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Edinburgh International Festival 2005

Pennsylvania Ballet -- 'Swan Lake'

by Kate Snedeker

August 15, 2005 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Scotland

When you live in the centre of Edinburgh -- and therefore smack in the middle of the festivals -- the excitement can quickly wear thin.  However there are nights when you are reminded why it’s all so special -- and the opening of Pennsylvania Ballet's "Swan Lake" was one of those nights.  Dancing in front of a packed Edinburgh Festival Theatre, the company made a sensational international debut with Christopher Wheeldon’s sparkling new version of the ballet classic.

Choreographed especially for Pennsylvania Ballet in Spring 2004, Wheeldon's "Swan Lake" is set in late 19th century Paris -- the era of Degas.  The timing is significant, for at the same time that Degas was painting his now-famous ballerinas, the first "Swan Lake" was taking shape in Russian studios.

The ballet drifts back and forth between the rehearsal studio of a Parisian ballet company -- rehearsing "Swan Lake" of course -- and the dreams of the principal male dancer.  So immersed in the role of Siegfried is the principal that the lines between reality and fantasy become utterly blurred.

Adrianne Lobel's sets make this transition seamless and stunning -- the studio is sketched out with decorated walls and great glass doors.  As the focus wavers from reality to the principal's dream world, the walls become translucent, a great grey fog-draped sea visible behind.  When the swans enter and exit through the glass doors, the dividing line between fantasy and fact becomes even blurrier; we are neither here nor there.  The sets bring together the two worlds in an unique way without the use of even a puff of dry-ice fog.

In this "Swan Lake," it is the Patron (Alexei Charov) -- one of that breed of wealthy men who would donate to the ballet in exchange for being able to wine, dine (and often bed) their favorite ballerinas -- who becomes the evil Von Rothbart.  For, though the patrons kept the ballet going, it was a system of power, corruption and, surely, broken hearts.

Zachary Hench, as the principal dancer, displayed noble bearing and impressive ballon, powering through the penultimate series of double tours in the Act III solo.  However, it was together with his Odette/Odile, Riolama Lorenzo, that he really shone.  Lorenzo’s Odette embodied both solidity and frailty, her trembling arms, the Swan's beating wings -- a swan that was allowing herself to be vulnerable to Siegfried's love.  Yet, Lorenzo also exuded power, impressive in her long balance in a stunningly elegant 90-degree pirouette with arms in high fifth.  And she maintained the elegance by reaching for Hench's hand before she started to waver, so that the effect was of complete control.

The third act, the act of the divertissements, returns to the studio, transformed with tables & decorations for a gala dinner.  Here in front of the ballerinas, the various patrons and the Patron, the new production of "Swan Lake" is to be formally announced.  This is the time for the traditional divertissements, and Wheeldon adds his own unique zing to the various dances.  The Russian dance becomes a clever striptease -- the panels of the dancer’s dress pulling away one by one to reveal black lace undergarments.  The pas de quatre and Spanish dance are more traditional, but the final dance has been turned into a cheeky can-can.

The looming mirror, an essential studio instrument in which dancers search for fault or perfection, becomes the centerpiece and the connection between reality and dream. From it’s depths, Odile appears in her seductive ebony tutu, and then later Odette, with her desperate attempts to remind Siegfried of his promise.  However, here the mirror betrays the single-minded, near obsessive focus of the dancer, for just like the boy in "Afternoon of a Faun," the dancer only sees himself in the mirror. 

Lorenzo's Odile was manipulatively evil in all her sinewy power.  In the all-important pas de deux, she and Hench were spot on, matching the crescendos of the orchestra. Hench's was at his most heart-wrenching in his display of despair at his betrayal of Odette, prostrate in grief as the Patron, now the ghoulish eyed Rothbart, celebrated his triumph.

To accommodate the relatively small corps, Wheeldon limited his bevy of swan maidens to 18.  Yet his choreography does not leave one wanting for he creates lines that fill the stage and keep the eye moving so there is no chance to stop and see empty space.  Particularly striking is the moment where the swans cluster in around Odette, a tightly knit revolving mass of white tulle.

The female corps, though not with utter perfection, moved and flowed as one.  Yet what was strikingly impressive was the silence -- there was stunningly little 'pointe shoe clatter'.  And so these swans really seemed to fly across the stage.

For costume designer, Wheeldon made a wise choice in former dancer Jean-Marc Puissant.  Puissant created tutus for the swans that are longer than the traditional platter tutu, but not so long as to be romantic.  These slightly droopy tutus move like powerful swan wings -- much more fitting than the brittle-seeming platter tutus of many productions.

What brings the whole ballet together is Wheeldon's clever and moving finale.  Perhaps influenced by Peter Martins' production, Wheeldon chooses to allow his swans kill Rothbart, but with the curse now eternal, Odette disappears back into her column of swan maidens leaving Siegfried alone and desolate.

However, as Odette fades away, so does the foggy sea and the principal finds himself back in the studio, surrounded by the ballerinas in their swan costumes preparing for rehearsal.  As he picks himself up from the floor, out from the group steps the principal ballerina…his Odette.  At the moment of his realization, the curtain drops (unfortunately on this occasion, I fear, too soon for those in the upper rings to see the penultimate moment of recognition).

It's this final moment that unites all four acts. Wherever you feel the line between fantasy and reality is drawn, it's a wonderfully touching ending that allows for a glimpse of 'happily ever after' without the cringingly saccharine endings that plague other productions.  Siegfried may not get his Swan Maiden, but the principal dancer might have a chance with his ballerina. Or not.

Looking back, this \"Swan Lake" was not a ballet that jumped out and grabbed this writer from the get go.  After Act 1, I was interested, but not sure of where we were going, but by Act 2 I was hooked and ended up enchanted by the ballet.  It's not perfect, but in it's unique and refreshing look at an old favorite, it's certainly something to be proud of and a wonderful production for the Pennsylvania Ballet to treasure.

The evening seemed to be an auspicious start for the temporary partnership between the company and the Tschaikovsky Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio.  Conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev has some ballet experience but apparently this was the orchestra's first time playing for a ballet company.  Despite a few uneven tempos and the odd note out of tune, the orchestra provided a lush, full sound. So it seems this partnership is inspired.

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