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Royal Danish Ballet 'Swan Lake'

by Kate Snedeker

December 15, 2006 -- Operaen, Copenhagen, Denmark

This December, the Royal Danish Ballet is celebrating the holiday season with performances of two company classics, "Swan Lake" and "Napoli".  On this unseasonably warm evening, a captivating performance of "Swan Lake" at the Opera House provided a welcome distraction from the rainy reality outside.  Peter Martins' version of the ballet, based on earlier productions by Ivanov, Petipa and Balanchine, takes a more abstract, less story-based approach to the traditional classic.  The pared down mime and Per Kirkeby's abstract set designs shifted the focus to the dance, and it is the dance that is the strength of this production.

In just their second performance in the lead roles, Yao Wei and Sebastian Michanek were a physically and stylisticallly well matched couple.  Michanek, who joined the company this season from the Royal Swedish Ballet, is a handsome and passionate prince.  Though technically very proficient and clearly comfortable with Michanek's partnering, Yao Wei was a distant, somewhat chilly Odette.  There is a fine line between being fragile and nervously aloof and being icy and brittle, and Wei is still finding the balance. 

However, as the evil Odile, Wei was nothing short of sensational.  She was the eptiome of evil allure, sizzling in her solos, though her fouettes are still a work in progress.  Returning to Odette in the second act, Wei seemed revitalized, bringing to the role some of the emotion and much of the characterisation that was missing earlier. Michanek, like his fellow Swede, Tim Matiakis, is a superb turner and has nice, sleek lines.  Unfortunately the overall quality of his dancing seemed to suffer from his attempt to power through conductor Tadeusz Wojciechowski's overly slow tempos.  Still, he managed to finish each solo with a superb, well-timed flourish.

The role of the jester has been much maligned in New York, where this production is performed by the New York City Ballet.  After seeing Morten Eggert's wonderful, nuanced interpretation of the role, however, it is clear that role is not flawed, it just only works in the right set of hands – and Eggert is most capable.  Unlike in NY where the role is cast with very small dancers, Eggert is as tall, if not taller, than Michanek – and this brings a whole different feel to the jester.  

He's not a little bit of bouncing entertainment, but someone who is employed to entertain and who reacts and responds to the progression of the story.  Eggert has developed into one of the company's most talented character dancers and matches it with impressive technique. The company would do well to ensure that his talents are nurtured and encouraged, as he is a dancer they cannot afford to lose.

Martins' von Rothbart can seem a bit silly in his face paint and bright orange cape, and Thomas Flint Jeppesen, in his debut, hasn't yet figured out how to make the character sufficiently menacing.  An unfortunate tangle with the cape early in the ballet didn't help.   Lis Jeppesen also was hampered by problematic costuming, as the bulky dress was particularly unflattering on her petite figure, though her powerful presence was enough to overcome this issue.

The joy in Martins' production is truly in the dancing, and the company rose to the occasion.  The 20-strong swan corps, though not picture perfect, did what so many other companies’ swans have failed to do, and that is dance as a stylistically and emotionally coherent group.  The women clearly have benefited from strong and effective coaching, the result of which was a group that truly seemed like a flock of swans moving in harmony.  This harmony was also apparent in the first act group work with its weaving, lyrical patterns.  In one section, where the men do a series of beats together, the effect of so many bodies going up in complete synchrony was very impressive.

The second act divertissements marked a passing of the torch of sorts.  In seven divertissements, only three principals were present, with new soloist and corps members taking on almost all the major roles – and doing them well.  Dawid Kupinski could still use work on his phrasing and control, but his power, silky lines and grace are stunning.  With so much talent already apparent, one hopes he gets the right coaching and opportunities to make the most of them.  If he does, ballet fans have a lot to look forward to over the next decade.

Though Izabela Sokolowska and Susanne Grinder were more than competent alongside Kupinski, Gudrun Bojesen was the star of the pas de quatre, seemingly almost to levitate with her opening series of fast, tight chaine turns.   The other two principal dancers performing were Marie-Pierre Greve and Thomas Lund in the Russian Dance.   Though Lund is perhaps not the obvious choice for such a role, he attacked it with such a sinuous intensity that one could forget the hideous costume and concentrate on the dancing.  In the other dances, promising debuts came from Sebastian Kloborg in Hungarian, Ulrik Birkkjær in Spanish and Rebecca Labbé in Neopolitian.

Dancing aside, the production’s high point is in its ending.  Martins should be applauded for resisting any urge to resort to the usual schmaltzy happy ending.  Instead, he acknowledges the power of Odette and Siegfried's love by allowing it to destroy von Rothbart.  But in that destruction, the fate that Siegfried chose for himself by swearing love to Odile is sealed, for with Rothbart dead, the charm that keeps Odette a swan by day can never be broken.  She bids farewell to the anguished Siegfried, as she bourrees off the stage, lit from behind and followed by her flock of white – and black – swans.  The juxtaposition of colors is a striking reminder of Siegfried's betrayal.

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