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Royal Ballet on Tour

'Swan Lake'

by Lori Ibay

July 12, 2007 -- Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, PA

I knew from the start of the evening that the Royal Ballet’s performance of “Swan Lake” on Thursday night would be different from the last seven or eight “Swan Lakes” I’ve seen performed by American ballet companies in recent years.  Perhaps it was knowing that the Royal Ballet hadn’t performed in Philadelphia since before I was born (the first appearance was thirty-one years ago, also at the Mann), not to mention that the performances at the open-air Mann would be the company’s only stop on the east coast of the United States during their current tour.  But, more likely, it was something slightly more tangible – the setting and atmosphere on the summer evening was unlike any other ballet performance I have attended.

As I made my way down to my seat from the rear of the venue, passing through the lawn with audience members spread out with their blankets and coolers, I took in the picturesque setting.  A cool breeze carried the scent from the food vendors on the hill beyond the lawn, and I was silently thankful that the thunderstorm the night before had broken the heat wave of ninety-degree nights (though it likely disrupted the Royal Ballet’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet”).  To the right of the stage, tall dark trees would frame this “Swan Lake,” and the setting sun behind me cast glittering patches of light on the curtain. 

Sadly, the charm of the setting was all but ruined when the performance began.  While the glorious opening notes of the orchestra, led by conductor Valery Ovsyanikov, floated in the air as the overture began, they were nearly drowned out by the sounds of the audience still conversing, still making their way into their seats.  The seemingly undermanned ushers seemed unable to stop the flow of people entering the theater, even when the overture was nearly over, and when the curtain rose on the dancers, people were still standing, talking, and squinting at their ticket stubs.  A rush of applause at the entrance of the Prince brought some attention to the fact that there was activity on the stage but did little to hurry people into their seats.  The woman seated behind me tsk-tsked loudly, commenting, “The same thing happened last night.”

The audience was not fully settled until partially into the Act I Pas de Trois, danced by Laura Morera, Deirdre Chapman, and Yohei Sasaki.  The women were as lively and dainty as the orchestra’s beautiful music, dancing with ease and lightness.  However, Sasaki stole the spotlight with his powerful leaps, landing clean double-tours with authority, in a tight fifth position.  He wavered slightly on his pirouettes, never fully finding his center, but proved he was better in the air than on the ground by rousing cheers from the now quieted crowd with his impressively athletic grand jetés en tournant. 

Throughout Act I the corps was festive, dressed in earthy browns, greens, and yellows with streaks of color added with ribbons.  The men’s corps was particularly spirited, dancing with the reckless abandon of party-goers.  Alastair Marriott as the Tutor added humor with his antics with two young girls (ballet students from the local area).  Prince Siegfried, danced by Federico Bonelli with regal poise, showed both youthful energy in the celebration as well as boyish gloom at the prospect of marrying. 

The crowd was delayed in settling down again at the start of Act II, and nearly missed the first glimpse of the sinister Gary Avis (An Evil Spirit Later Von Rothbart) peering out of the shadows as the Prince and his friends hunted in the woods.  However, the first entrance of Odette, danced by Tamara Rojo, completely captivated the audience.  Rojo’s incredible balance and control in prolonged poses in arabesque contrasted remarkably with her fluttering bourrées that showed her fragility.  Her wonderfully expressive arms told the tale of her curse, while her incredible extension (especially in penchée) was absolutely breathtaking. 

With Bonelli’s long, graceful lines, the pair was deliberate, smooth, and romantic in their tender pas de deux.  His strength and steady partnering peaked at the end of the act, as he lifted Rojo with outstretched arms, completely unwavering as he carried her upstage.

The women’s corps led by the Two Swans (Chapman and Isabel McMeekan) was simply lovely, dancing with graceful fluidity.  The large corps transitioned seamlessly between neat formations, with the smoothness of swans gliding on water.  Cygnets Bethany Keating, Hikaru Kobayashi, Iohna Loots, and Natasha Oughtred danced in tight, near-perfect synchrony; their only divergence was in the final tilts of their heads before breaking away from each other. 

There was a lengthy intermission between Acts II and III, and when Royal Ballet Director Monica Mason took the microphone just before the start of the third act, part of me wondered whether she would personally ask the audience to be seated and quiet before the dancers began this time.  Instead, she announced that Rojo had injured herself and would be replaced by principal Roberta Marquez, who had spent the extra minutes of the intermission rehearsing with Bonelli, with whom she had never danced before. 

Thus, Act III seemed a blur in anticipation of seeing the new principal perform.  The Princesses (Victoria Hewitt, Kobayashi, Kristen McNally, Sian Murphy, Samantha Raine, and Gemma Sykes), all draped in gold, were uniformly graceful and elegant in their futile attempts to win Prince Siegfried’s attention.  The flamenco-flavored Spanish Dance featured Christina Arestis, Francesca Filpi, Kenta Kura, and Joshua Tuifua who danced with passion and spice.  The heel-clicking Czardas were led by Chapman and Jonathan Howells, with a steady start and a romping finish.

By far the most vivacious performers were Morera and Ricardo Cervera in the Neapolitan, dancing with an infectious energy that revived the crowd.  The Mazurka was danced by Tara Bhavnani, Celisa Diuana, Cindy Jourdain, Laura McCulloch, Bennet  Gartside, Ryoichi Hirano, Vito Mazzeo, and Johannes Stepanek with much vigor.

Finally, Marquez as Odile began the Black Swan Pas de Deux, and wowed the audience with equally impressive balance and control, but with slightly less length and stretch to her extension than Rojo.  Alluring and seductive, she mesmerized the Prince, and leading off with a triple pirouette, completed twenty-eight crisp, controlled fouettés. 

Bonelli was equally impressive, effortlessly soaring across the stage with airy grand jetés and double tours.  His open fouettés were quick and centered perfectly in a rock solid core.  Yet, while he passionately declared his love for the Black Swan, he still seemed to dance with just a bit of reserve that made me wish he would toss away the royal posture and dance with complete abandon.

Rojo returned in the final act, seemingly intact except for slightly less reach in her extension, which likely would have gone unnoticed, had we not witnessed her capabilities in the second act.  Again, her chemistry with Bonelli was apparent, and Prince Siegfried, now overcome with emotion, performed without restraint.  This version ends with both Odette and Siegfried hurling themselves off the rocks upstage, presumably to their deaths, but they reappear floating on a white vessel in the distant mists at the end.

Despite the unanticipated drama of the evening, Royal Ballet’s performance was exciting and inspiring, and the audience’s thunderous applause continued past 11:00pm as the dancers took multiple well-deserved bows.  Hopefully far less than three decades will pass before the company’s next return to Philadelphia, and hopefully the sponsoring venue will be more prepared to host them appropriately.

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