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Pacific Northwest Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by Dean Speer

February 3, 2007 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

While it may be a stock saying, it’s true that electricity was in the air for the sold-out performance of Patricia Barker making the first of her two outings as the beautiful but doomed Swan Queen, Odette, and her evil “twin,” Odile.

PNB first premiered its Kent Stowell/Francia Russell production in 1981, refurbishing it in 2003 with new costumes and sets. It has worn well and was a substantial addition to the repertory at the time and certainly this is true for this season too. I recall how Denise Bolstad – who was the front desk “line of defense” and School Registrar in ‘81 – reported to Russell how she overheard some members of the media before the press conference announcing this ballet, “tsk-tsking” and muttering about how presumptuous it was of them to tackle this work. I further recall Russell responding that they had already done ballets that were harder than “Swan Lake.” Nevertheless, it is a monumental undertaking and not one to be done lightly or by a company that does not have the resources to do it well.

PNB has those resources and then some – certainly in the talents of its dancers, from the top echelons to the corps. Probably each female and male could do the lead parts, which says a lot about the level of technique, skill, and artistry that’s consistent throughout the company. And then there’s Patricia Barker and her principal rank colleagues. Which brings us to Barker’s fabulous performance.

Always long on technique, Barker is coupling this with mature and deep artistry. It was clear to me that every detail had been worked out and thought through for clarity and purpose. Every step in the ballet means something. From the dazzling fouèttes that mesmerize hapless Siegfried in Act III’s Black Swan Pas de Deux to every piqué and port de bras, all were hung with portent and pathos. And there’s the actress side of Barker that scares me – her Odile was sharp and clear in what she was about in her duplicity and nefarious intentions. I was impressed with her phrasing.

Bulgarian Stanko Milov has become a valuable import. In the past, his dancing could at times border on the rough side, but Act I’s ball scene showed him to be newly improved. His batterie was clean, solid, and he “stuck” all of his landings and finished each movement phrase well, such as ending out of multiple pirouettes. His characterization was good. I liked his energetic and joyous entrance – the prince sparkled. He also gives us enough of the “princely melancholy” but without over doing it. Finally, his character’s remorse at having “messed up” seemed genuine.

The sorcerer, Baron von Rothbart, has got to be difficult not only to choreograph but to perform. I’ve rarely seen a production where he shows us the source of his power. Most productions, including this one, have him stalking about looking vaguely threatening but somehow there isn’t enough “meat” to the part. My favorites are the productions in which Odette stops Siegfried not only from shooting her swan flock but von Rothbart in particular, indicating that if he does, she’s also doomed, having not permanently changed back into a woman at that point without true love sworn.

In this one, we do get the stopping of the killing of the cygnets but the average audience-goer has to be asking, why he doesn’t just bump off the guy, save the girl, be done with it, and live happily ever after? It’s rather a “thankless” part, although I think it must be fun to get booed and hissed at by the audience at curtain call, as was the case here with Christophe Maraval.

Much thanked and cheered was the boundlessly energetic Jonathan Porretta, whose unbounded energy and attack continue to excite, and it was fun seeing “The Porretta” step again during the Jester’s solo in Act III. This is where he executes very fast hop turns à la seconde with his right leg, and then without stopping, picks up and switches to his left leg – some pretty impressive stuff. But Porretta dancing is not merely all about tricks and impressive feats. He’s clear with his characterization of this part, working to move the dramatic action forward when he can.


Corps Strength

The winner of the heart and soul award goes to Act II, the “lakeside” scene. Here, the prince and Odette meet, fall in love, and hope for a future free from curses and featherbeds. While our eyes are on this couple, they are also on the corps de ballet who not only provide “atmosphere” but give us the pieces of large ensemble dancing for which this ballet is noted. The corps was tight, with not even a little finger out of place. Their ensemble work was just that; very much a team effort, breathing and moving together. Kudos to Russell and the ballet masters.

Little swans and big swans also have their moments – the “pas de quatre” of the four little cygnets and the big waltz for three big swans (in this version). Itself a lesson in ensemble, the “dance of the four little swans” is a test for this. If any one thing is misplaced or off, it’ll show. Happily, Leanne Duge, Chalnessa Eames, Rachel Foster, and Kara Zimmerman were perfect. The steps and music for the big swans requires big movers and we got that with Stacy Lowenberg, Lesley Rausch, and Mara Vinson.

And I’m pleased to report that Maestro Kershaw and the Barker/Milov duo did match up for the sissonne lifts, nicely nailing the peak of the violin with the height of the lift. Some recent productions that I’ve seen were like watching an out-of-sync movie – the lips not quite together with the audio.

The brightest dancing spot in Act I is the Pas de Trois. With its many cabrioles, turns, and balances, it’s its own tour de force. Karel Cruz’s elevation was impressive. Lowenberg’s long line was put to good effect, as were Maria Chapman’s nicely arched feet. Although her legs started to tire somewhat at the end of this very challenging trio, her smile and spark did not.

Act III is a divertissement act with classic ballet character dances such as the Czardas. I liked how costume designer Paul Tazewell dressed the six princesses from the same palette while yet giving each of their ensembles a national flavor through shape and cut, suggesting through color how they pale and fade into the background of the prince’s attention – whose attention is fixated on his memory of Odette.

If the bright spot of Act I is its Pas de Trois, then this commendation has to go to the Neapolitan Dance, cheerily danced by Jodie Thomas and NW native Benjamin Griffiths who came to PNB recently from Boston Ballet. Both are “soubrettes,” although I’m not convinced this appellation exactly applies to men, it is appropriate for what they are asked to do.

Ariana Lallone may be tired of my quoting the Dance Magazine tag about her being “one, hot ballerina,” but it’s true. True then and true now. Given the “Persian Dance” (titled “Russian” in some versions), she made the most out of many pas marché, forced arch piqués in attitude, turns, and generally looking exotic. She’s a creature who inhabits each of her roles.

The “Black Swan Pas de Deux” was terrific. Each one of the pair digging into the solos and the adagio itself, smooth with clear phrasing. Milov is someone who likes turning, and his zest and ability shows. His cabrioles during his first solo had good elevation and were clean. Barker’s best bits were her first solo – the one with all of the renversés and the attitude turns and quick front assemblés – and the end of the coda, where she really ferociously attacked the piqués on the diagonal that quickly and sharply brushes the left leg from front to back. You could tell, this Odile was out for the kill.

And for those who are asking and dying to know, by my count she did 28 fouettés – although she did turn for all 32 counts, beginning the fourth position pirouette on count one. How many is not exactly the point, although I know it is to some. Rather it’s what she does with them and the effect they are to have on the prince. [Margot Fonteyn is famously quoted as intoning, “24 are quite enough, thank you!”]

A Swan’s Song

PNB’s Act IV ends unhappily for both. Siegfried did not break the magic spell and, while truly remorseful, he must live with his guilt and Odette must go back to being a bird by day, perhaps hoping to find someone in the future who will swear true love to her and not be swindled.

Barker is retiring all too soon for my money, and being able to experience her dancing artistry in one of ballet’s finest vehicles is bittersweet. Yet we can take some small comfort in the knowledge that she’ll be treading the boards through the end of the June season.

Of Note

In a review published by one of Seattle’s daily newspapers, a critic complains about amplification of the orchestra in McCaw Hall. I have it from the conductor’s own mouth, that this is not true. What microphones we may see are only there to provide a sound feed to backstage.

And speaking of the PNB Orchestra, Kershaw led an ensemble that sounded great – in tune, on time, with a nice rich sound.

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