by Lori Ibay
March 3, 2011 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Pennsylvania Ballet first presented the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s re-envisioned “Swan Lake” on June 4, 2004, neatly timed with the Dance Critics Association’s 30th annual conference taking place in Philadelphia the same weekend, and allowing dozens of critics (myself included) to witness the historic event. The timing of this season’s opening night was probably not coincidental either. With the 2011 Academy Awards still fresh in our memory – complete with images of a glowing, pregnant Natalie Portman clutching her Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the blockbuster film, “Black Swan” (which was also nominated for five other awards, including Best Motion Picture) – it seems as though audiences are eager to see a full-length, real-live “Swan Lake.” If they’d decided to pile into the Academy of Music on Thursday night, as I did, they would not have been disappointed.
Wheeldon’s modernized “Swan” still feels refreshingly innovative, even seven seasons after my first viewing. Gone are the typical stone castles, the dark woods, the evil sorcerers, and the parade of princesses at the royal ball. Instead we have a company rehearsing for its production of “Swan Lake,” a sinister ballet patron, a motley entourage at the company’s gala, and a principal dancer obsessed with his role. The opening scene roots us unmistakably in the Degas era. Ballerinas gather in rehearsal clothes, pausing deliberately for fleeting moments while tying their shoes or fixing their hair, creating live reproductions of Degas paintings. By setting the action in the 19th century, Wheeldon ingeniously makes his version simultaneously modern yet traditional, and undoubtedly more accessible to 21st century audiences.
As the principal dancer overly engrossed in his role, Zachary Hench is regal and engaging. Hench was Wheeldon’s original Siegfried, and the character seems to come second nature to him. His partnering looks effortless, even in the most intricate pas de deux; he consistently delivers fireworks during his solos (and rarely fewer than five revolutions in his pirouettes); and his emotions flow from him so naturally that we believe and sympathize with his turmoil and his heartbreak.
Opposite him, and in nearly opposite circumstances, new to the role and (gasp) corps de ballet member Lauren Fadeley attacked the challenge with grace, poise, and solid technique. Her Odette was appropriately timid and apprehensive, and her long arms were a natural fit for the swan-like movements. As Odile, Fadeley was more confident, coy, and flirty, though not as sexy, seductive, and truly evil as I hoped she would be (admittedly this opinion comes from one who feels that every traditional “Swan” should end in a double suicide). It will be interesting to see how she develops her portrayal of the Black Swan as she continues to perform this role throughout her career. Technically solid, Fadeley showed off beautiful lines and perfectly arched feet, and in her Act III solo, fired off twenty-two uniform single pirouettes (but who’s counting?). More importantly, she was expressive and believable in her despair in Act IV, which was key in delivering the tragedy of the love story.
The corps de ballet supported the principals with lively dancing in Act I’s company rehearsal scene. Dressed not in costumes, but in rehearsal attire of muted grays and whites, the dancers added all the color to the scene with their movement, particularly the men’s corps, whose sequence of grand jetes never lost their height, even in the umpteenth leaps at the end of the sequence. Standouts in Act I were Martha Chamberlain, Lillian Di Piazza, and Jermel Johnson (whose ballon never ceases to amaze) in the Pas de Trois.
In Acts II and IV, the women’s corps was absolutely stunning as the flock of swans. They seemed to move, breathe, flow, and morph as one organism into beautiful shapes and forms that Wheeldon expertly weaves. By moving the swans onto the stage more quickly than previous versions, the flock really seems to fly into the scene, and the constant changes in formation make the seamless uniformity of the group more mesmerizing than monotonous. The Cygnets, danced by Laura Bowman, Phoebe Gavula, Abigail Mentzer, and Ryoko Sadoshima, were in near-perfect unison, with only a barely-noticeable stray tilt of the head reminding us that there’s no CGI involved in this production.
Act III’s festivities were fueled by Abigail Mentzer, Kaia Annika Tack, Ian Hussey, and Jermel Johnson in an energetic Pas de Quatre; Amy Aldridge dancing the Russian striptease with flair (with help from an eager and enthusiastic men’s corps); Lillian Di Piazza, Edward Barnes, and Jonathan Stiles dancing a flamenco-infused Spanish Dance that was fiery, if not a bit out of control; and Rachel Maher with James Ihde as the heel-kicking Czardas. Catalin Curcio, Adrianna de Svastich, Amy Holihan, Riolama Lorenzo, and Alison Pray danced a fun and flirty Can-Can before Meredith Rainey’s scheming Von Rothbart introduces Odile.
The evening’s opening night glitches – stage directions audible enough to be heard through the curtain, a stray spotlight here, poor lighting there – were minimal enough not to affect the success of the performance. With final showings coming up on March 12th, this is an opportunity not to be missed for balletomanes and movie-buffs alike. And, with fourteen Pennsylvania Ballet dancers (including Fadeley) appearing in “Black Swan,” and the film’s choreographer (and fiancé to Natalie Portman) Benjamin Millepied presenting a world premiere at the company’s April performances, Pennsylvania Ballet is undoubtedly the company to see this spring.