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American Ballet Theatre

'Swan Lake'

by Colleen Boresta

June 27, 2009 Matinee -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City

After “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake” is probably the most popular ballet in the world.  It contains both Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score and the penultimate challenge for the ballerina, the dual role of Odette/Odile.  I  have seen “Swan Lake” live close to 36 times.  Even a production as flawed as American Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake” (it’s choreographed by Kevin McKenzie after – way after – Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov) is noteworthy for the high caliber of the dancers.

“Swan Lake” is the story of Odette, a princess who is turned into a swan by the evil magician, von Rothbart.  Odette can only become a woman again if a man who has never loved before pledges his eternal love to Odette.  The young Prince Siegfried meets Odette while hunting and falls in love with her.  Siegfried tells Odette he will love her always.  However, at Siegfried’s 21st birthday ball, von Rothbart’s daughter Odile arrives.  Due to her father’s magic, Odile looks exactly like Odette.  Odile seduces Siegfried into declaring his undying love for her.  Odette, knowing she will now always be a swan, breaks von Rothbart’s power by throwing herself into a pond.  Prince Siegfried also throws himself into the pond, and the two lovers are reunited in the afterworld.

ABT’s production of “Swan Lake” has several major weaknesses.  There are two von Rothbarts, one handsome and seductive, the other looking like the creature from the Green Lagoon.  This “Swan Lake” includes a prologue which shows the two von Rothbarts turning Odette into a swan.  Seeing Odette as a young maiden at the beginning of the ballet takes away much of the magic and wonder of Odette’s entrance as the Swan Queen in Act II.  The sight of the monster von Rothbart squeezing a stuffed toy swan (after Odette has been turned into a swan) is just ridiculous.  Other flaws include the handsome von Rothbart getting his own solo in Act III.  This solo makes little sense dramatically, and it leaves the audience wishing it would end so the Prince and Odile can dance the Black Swan pas de deux.    Perhaps the most serious defect in McKenzie’s “Swan Lake” is that so much of Act IV is deleted.  Without a complete final act, much of Odette’s grief and Siegfried’s devastation over his betrayal of Odette is lost.

Due to the power of the ABT dancers, this “Swan Lake” still works its magic.  Michele Wiles is a glorious Swan Queen with wonderful bird-like arms and a beautifully flexible back.  As good as her Odette is, Wiles is a more natural Odile.  She is gleefully seductive during the Black Swan pas de deux, whipping off double and triple fouettes with aplomb.  Wiles has remarkable chemistry with her Siegfried, David Hallberg, and their pas de deux during Act II and Act IV are spellbinding to watch as well as heartbreaking.

As Siegfried, Hallberg is the perfect prince, a phrase which has often been mentioned in connection with Hallberg’s dancing.  He has an elegant, refined line and incredible footwork.  Best of all are Hallberg’s soaring jumps, where he seems to hang in the air.

Other ABT dancers stand out too.  The Act I pas de trois is impressively performed by Misty Copeland, Yuriko Kajiya, and Carlos Lopez.  Copeland radiates such joy and spontaneity in her dancing that it makes me smile just to watch her.  Kajiya has light, lovely leaps, and wonderful use of her hands.  Lopez is an excellent partner, and has nice elevation and ballon.  It’s good to see Lopez back to his old form after seeing him dance a very disappointing peasant pas de deux in ABT’s “Giselle” at the June 13th matinee.

The all important female corps in the white acts (Act II and the sadly abbreviated Act IV) dance in glorious tandem with each other and the music.  Stella Abera and Hee Seo’s lyrical phrasing as the two big swans is lovely to watch.

Cory Stearns, as the handsome von Rothbart, is a disappointment.  He’s gotten the character of the seductively evil wizard right, but his dancing in Act III lacks sharpness and precision.  His elevation is not nearly as high as when I saw him as Conrad in ABT’s “Le Corsaire” at the May 30th matinee.

Hopefully American Ballet Theatre will go back to performing David Blair’s “Swan Lake,” which they danced before 2000.  “Swan Lake” is a rich and powerful ballet, and it deserves the best production possible.

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