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Oregon Ballet Theatre - 'Swan Lake'

by Dean Speer

June 10, 2006, matinee-- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

Good news for ballet fans from the Pacific Northwest: a fine and opulent full-length “Swan Lake” that OBT and Portland ballet fans will be proud of for many years to come. This year’s reprise of Act III included a much improved ‘Russian’ dance and removal of a misguided attempt to insert a mini back-story (thank you, Mr. Stowell!).

My only real complaint is the deletion of the music – and dance – for the “big” swans in Act II. It’s a glorious waltz and music that was missed.

However, the conductor and the dancers missed each other several times throughout the performance.. During the two pas de deux, there are many poses and movements that should hit the music just so, and it was a bit like watching an out-of-sync film. Roper and Sultanov were fine, and even though it was clear that Neil DePonte was intently watching with baton in hand, there was too much of a delay between what we saw and what we heard. It got better, but for a while it was disconcerting. It may also be that this was the first time that this pair got an orchestra outing, since it was their first performance – their second being the following matinée on Sunday.

Alison Roper was fabulous in the dual role of Odette/Odile. Her strong technique was imbued with a sense of the fatalistic and tragic as the tender and love-needy Odette. Her Odile was layered with snarls and hidden fangs as she and père Rothbart (Paul De Strooper) worked on foiling Siegfried’s love for Odette.

Roper’s Prince Siegfried, Artur Sultanov, is long of line and Hollywood star visage, and fundamentally he has good, underlying technique.  However, he seemed to run out of juice as the swans carried on. My initial reaction was that perhaps he’d become dehydrated during the show, but in pondering further have come to the conclusion that it’s an increase in stamina that he needs to work on. His Act III solo needed more oomph; however, the sense of flagging energy works fine in the concluding Act IV, where all is lost due to his zealous and mistaken pledge to Odile and due to how Odette and flock are doomed to eternal flapping.

Act I’s divertissements were handled nicely by both the choreographer and the groups that dance them. Particularly memorable and charming was the pas de trois with Daniela Deloe, Anne Mueller, and Jon Drake.

Act II’s ‘Four Little Swans’ received a well-deserved ovation: Ansa Deguchi, Emily Tedesco, Natalie Wilson, and Holly Zimmerman. They were appropriately tight and swift of foot and head. It’s one of those numbers that audiences always look forward to as it shows off the dancers and the overall level of the company.

The corps was exquisite in this ballet blanc act; no surprise here given the coaching by Francia Russell and OBT’s ballet mistress Lisa Kipp. I really like and appreciate how they had the swans keep their entrance motif à terre (step, hop in arabesque élongé and emboîtés devant, repeated) and how they gradually increased this same pattern to more of a springy sauté and vigor, perhaps suggesting the change of the characters from swans to maidens, per the legend.

Roper’s and Sultanov’s duet was limpid and spoke well of the two finding each other and of Odette placing her hope– and that of her cygnets – in this prince’s vow of eternal love and hence their freedom from Rothbart’s spell. Roper’s supported pirouettes and stretch into arabesque were sustained just right.

Act III’s “Betrothal Ball” built into the right amount of spirited character dances and classical pas. Among the latter were the pas de trois with Daniela Deloe, Anne Mueller, and Brennan Boyer and the pas for the six princesses at the ball – each vying for the hand of the prince: Candice Bouchard, Olivia Lavery, Amanda Simnitt, Rachel Simons, Emily Tedesco, and Natalie Wilson.

Of the former, the ‘Neapolitan’ dance was particularly sunny and was brightly danced by the fresh Ansa Deguichi and Steven Houser.

I was happy to see both the ‘Spanish’ and ‘Czardas’ in actual character shoes and boots. Too often groups give in to the temptation to transfer the choreography to pointe for the women, and while it can be fun, it’s not as effective or authentic. It was great seeing both done straight-forward with no muss or fuss – just dancing!

The ‘Russian’ dance was vastly improved, as near to perfection as I’ve seen. I can now say what I thought last year and was sorely tempted to write: “Poor dancer bouréeing around the stage looking for an exit!” This year’s edition  has all the right stuff: a soulful, slow beginning quickly building to a zesty passion with the right balance between classical pointe work and character port de bras (hand behind the head, or arms crossed and leaning into the hip to the side, etc.). This dance truly went somewhere and was satisfying to see. As all dances should, it had a clear beginning, middle, and end.

The Black Swan pas de deux was effective and is one of those 12 minutes of a ballet that we all wait for.. Roper nailed all the technical requirements of her solo – double pirouette, double attitude turns from fourth, a beautiful long line on the attitude reversés, and a nice attack to show Odile’s aggressive nature on the rélevé arabesques. She didn’t quite power up to all 32 fouettés during the coda but that’s okay. I’ve seen it done many ways, from those who did16 to those who could do singles and doubles from beginning to end. The point is that she finished strongly and under control, and more importantly conveyed the idea behind this series of whipping turns – hypnotizing the prince so he doesn’t notice poor Odette, who is trying to get the prince’s attention to make him realize he’s about to be duped, flapping outside the palace gates

In Act IV, the prince begs for lakeside forgiveness, still hoping for love, redemption, and to be home in time to watch the 11 o’clock news. While Odette does forgive him by a gesture – brushing hishead, pushing it down so he won’t look at her, it’s really too late, and Odette is pulled back into her swan shape and is sent off at dawn, presumably by Rothbart, perhaps to meet her own doom at the hand of another unknowing hunter.

Hurray to OBT for mounting a standard version of this timeless classic and one that Northwest audiences will enjoy for a long time to come. Indeed, given only the first four initial performances and the clamor for tickets, they could probably already offer more and reap the artistic and financial benefits such a “Swan Lake” can bring. Thanks also for providing live music and an able orchestra and conductor. It’s the magic of the music and the dance coming together that makes for a memorable afternoon in the Rose City and one that illustrates how the cygnet OBT is becoming an elegant, long-necked Swan.

Next year’s season promises more to look forward to:

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