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Pennsylvania Ballet

"Swan Lake"

by Jerry Hochman

March 5, 2011 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA

Every once in a while, attending a ballet performance becomes more than just attending a ballet performance: It becomes an opportunity to recognize, and to celebrate, a landmark work of art. Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake” is cause for celebration.

I had heard about Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake,” was aware that his vision of this classic Romantic ballet was unusual and idiosyncratic, and recalled that the production was generally well-received when it premiered in 2004 (it was commissioned to celebrate PA Ballet’s fortieth anniversary). But except for the company’s appearance at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival, the production has been unseen, and under the radar, since then, despite Mr. Wheeldon’s ever-growing (and well-deserved) reputation as one of the finest of contemporary ballet choreographers. So when I heard that the production was scheduled to return to PA Ballet’s repertoire this season, I had to see it – even if it meant venturing outside of New York, New Jersey, and nearby San Francisco, Seattle, and London.

It was worth the trip. Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake” is intelligent without being too cerebral, complex without being overly complicated, exciting, audacious, and, most significantly, sensual (from the inside out, as I will explain below). And Mr. Wheeldon’s concept – setting the relatively standard operating “Swan Lake” in a ballet studio in late 19th century Paris, is much more than a simple concept. It is not only Petipa/Ivanov and Tchaikovsky mated with Degas, it is “Swan Lake” pollinated by Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge.” And, miraculously, on multiple levels, it works. If tickets for the only remaining performances (on March 12) are still available, go.

Mr. Wheeldon’s decision to change the ballet’s location is both reasonable and opportunistic. If the story is not going to take place in some Central European castle and nearby woodland surrounding a lake inhabited by a creepy monster and beautiful swan/ballerinas, setting it in late 19th century Paris is an alternative choice that makes sense. It was the time that the “Swan Lake” as we know it was initially produced, and the connections between Petipa and Paris, and even Tchaikovsky and Paris, are well known. [Indeed, Tchaikovsky visited Paris more than any city outside of Russia, and was in Paris in early 1876, around the time that he was in process of completing “The Lake of Swans,” which became “Swan Lake.”] And setting the action in a ballet studio enables Mr. Wheeldon to change the ballet’s center of gravity from the fantasy world of “Swan Lake” to the ‘real’ world of ballet at that place and time, as witnessed and represented by Degas – a world where the power of wealth and privilege met the power of beauty and sensuality, and where the dancing on stage may have been a prelude to a ‘real’ dance of mutual seduction.

The genius of this memorable production is that Mr. Wheeldon has used this concept as an opportunity to portray one world, the fantasy world of “Swan Lake,” mirrored in the ‘real’ ballet world of Degas, and in the process to blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. [And I’ve used the word ‘mirror’ advisedly – a mirror is a prominent visual component of the production.]

I will discuss Mr. Wheeldon’s creation in greater detail later in this review. But the evening was also memorable for PA Ballet, as a company. It had been many years since I’d seen PA Ballet, and I don’t recall being particularly impressed then. Things have changed, for the better.

As with any relatively small company, PA Ballet provides abundant opportunities for young dancers to gain performing experience. But under the leadership of artistic director Roy Kaiser, there appears to be an unusual effort here, at least based on this performance, to nurture, and to feature, younger dancers. Members of the corps, and even apprentices (for example, Laura Bowman and Lillian Di Piazza, respectively), are given soloist-level roles, and performed very well. Indeed, among the dancers I noticed were two very young dancers who are not yet on the company roster – one sprite, Ryoko Sadoshima, who performed with an engaging natural quality that stood out from the general tendency of other corps dancers toward stiffness (which comes from lack of experience rather than any lack of competence), and Phoebe Gavula, who danced with unusual clarity and assurance for someone so young. [I later ascertained that both these dancers, as well as others in last night’s cast, are with Pennsylvania Ballet II, PA Ballet’s pre-professional company.]

But perhaps the strongest measure of PA Ballet’s investment in the future is the selection of the two dancers to perform Odette/Odile for the seven-performance run. Brooke Moore, a soloist (for the matinee performances), and Lauren Fadeley, a member of the corps (for the evening performances).

I was unable to see Ms. Moore, but Ms. Fadeley, who has a NYCB pedigree, did an admirable job. Her Odette was promising, but also was clearly a work in progress (as it should be at this stage). Although she did well with the Romantic style, it seemed to this viewer to be a style that she had dutifully learned, rather than a style she adopted and inhabited for the performance. More importantly, she does not appear to be a ‘natural’ Odette, and seemed to have difficulty displaying the regal vulnerability that the role requires (although her Odette in Act IV, which is somewhat less emotionally complex, was very well done, and effectively moving).

On the other hand, Ms. Fadeley’s Odile was a knockout.

As I’ve written previously, for me the measure of success of a “Swan Lake” performance is how well the ballerina dances Odile. And for me the measure of how well the ballerina dances Odile is whether she successfully seduces both the Prince and the audience. Most ballerinas I’ve seen have a tougher time with Odile than with Odette. It’s not doing the steps – it’s doing the steps and being a siren at the same time. [Tomas (“Black Swan”) must have read my reviews.] And if the seduction doesn’t come across as an irresistible sexual force, the ballet loses its edge. As Odile, Ms. Fadeley knew what she was doing from the moment she hit the stage, and her ‘I’ve got what you want; what are you going to do to get it?’ smile was a killer. As any successful seductress knows, the looks may be a prerequisite, but if you want to catch your prey, and your prey’s wallet, it’s the attitude. Ms. Fadeley’s Odile had attitude to spare. That she didn’t do all the ‘requisite’ fouettes (which, after three consecutive nights of Odette/Odile, was understandable) didn’t matter; that she could convincingly make the Prince go weak in the knees did.

Which returns me to Mr. Wheeldon’s concept.

If anyone had asked me, which of course no one ever did, I would have told them that one way to consider learning how to portray Odile is to imagine how it would feel if you were an entertainer at a ‘gentleman’s club,’ and had to convince a customer to spend his money on you, and not on someone else. Mr. Wheeldon’s concept evolves into something similar.

The action takes place in a ballet studio where the dancers are rehearsing a new production of “Swan Lake.” The characters are the dancers, including a Principal Male Dancer who will perform Prince Siegfried in the ballet, a Gentleman Patron (one of many gentlemen patrons who populate the piece), who has donated substantially to the studio and who is allowed access to the rehearsal (and the ballerinas), the school’s Ballet Master (who will become Prince Siegfried’s tutor, Wolfgang), and various denizens of typical ballet studios (who will be recruited to play various roles in the production).

The opening scene of the dancers in the studio quickly transitions to the rehearsal of Act I itself (which, for the audience, is the ‘real’ Act I of the ‘real’ “Swan Lake”). When the rehearsal ends, the dancers, patrons, and others leave the studio, but the Principal Male Dancer, distressed by what he sees as the salacious motives of the Gentleman Patron (and probably also by the willingness of the ballerinas to accept and encourage this attention), is overcome with sadness. In his melancholy, he dreams, and in his dream he sees (and dances in) Act II of the “Swan Lake” production that the dancers are preparing to perform. But in this dream performance, which takes place in the studio, the villain who has entrapped the ballerinas into becoming swans, Von Rothbart, is none other than the Gentleman Patron – whose suit and top hat have been converted into ugly tattered rags (perhaps a reflection of the ugliness that the Principal Male Dancer sees in the Gentleman Patron’s character). Act III takes place in the same ballet studio, which has been converted into the location of a party to celebrate the new production, and where the guests are gentlemen patrons and the dancers. The Gentleman Patron has arranged the evening’s entertainment – seductive dances by the ballerinas to entice the other gentlemen patrons (the male dancers are along for the ride). These dances of seduction lead to the dance of seduction by Odile, presented by the Gentleman Patron (in the guise of Von Rothbart). The Principal Male Dancer’s dream then continues in Act IV, where he loses Odette to Von Rothbart’s unbroken spell, and the production then ends as the Principal Male Dancer returns to reality, the studio, and the ‘real’ dancers who have inhabited his dream.

As I see it, Mr. Wheeldon’s Act III is the cornerstone of the production and the key to its success.

In the usual production of “Swan Lake,” Odile's seduction of the prince, inevitable as it must be, emanates from outside the ‘real’ world of castles and kings, nobles and peasants, witches, fairies and sorcerers. Act III takes place in a fantasy castle where princesses from neighboring countries are presented for the uninterested Prince’s consideration as marital partners, and the princesses’ entourages provide the court’s entertainment (played ‘straight’ as character dances from each of the respective countries). Von Rothbart suddenly crashes the party (though sometimes this happens at the beginning of the Act), bringing Odile with him. Odile is the exotic temptress, different in appearance and attitude from the plain vanilla princesses, and she seduces the Prince. Prince Siegfried’s inability to resist temptation is the result of the imposition on him and his ‘real’ world of forces outside of the norm over which he has no familiarity, and no control.

In Mr. Wheeldon’s production, Odile’s seduction of the prince, inevitable as it must be, emanates from the inside. Act III takes place in the ‘real’ ballet world of late 19th century Paris, a world that included exclusive parties for gentlemen patrons (in an upscale 19th century French gentleman’s club?; in a rarified Moulin Rouge?), where the power that Odile has over the prince is just another example of a beautiful dancer’s ability to seduce wealthy men (who, of course, are there to be seduced, and expect nothing less). The diversions that the Gentleman Patron presents are not antiseptic character dances, but sexually-charged dances designed to enable the ballerina to seduce the gentlemen patrons and to convince one (or more) of them to share his wealth and status with her. In the first of these dances, one ballerina, dressed top-to-bottom in an all white costume as a Russian Snow Maiden (or Ice Princess), dances the ‘typical’ Russian variation seductively in front of the assembled men, and then allows herself to be disrobed piece-by-piece by different ‘gentlemen’ until she is no longer a virginal snow maiden, but a siren in lingerie. It is a high class strip tease. While less obvious, the subsequent ‘character’ dances are equally seductive – their only reason for being is for the lead ballerina to entice the gentlemen patrons. [The scene includes s a pas de quatre at the beginning, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the scene, and which perhaps was intended to be a ‘legitimate’ dance prelude to the ‘real’ dances of seduction to follow.] The final ‘character dance,’ before the Gentleman Patron morphs into Von Rothbart and presents Odile to entertain and seduce the Prince, is a Can-Can (danced to the music usually used for the Neapoliltan dance). So, in Mr. Wheeldon’s conception, Odile’s seduction of the prince is not so much the product of an outside force different from the ‘real’ world as it is an extension of, and reflection of, the ballet world of Degas with which the Principal Dancer is all too familiar.

But lest I give the impression that Mr. Wheeldon’s creation is more cerebral than it is, I’ll resist the temptation to convert this review into a thesis any further than I already have. Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake” is as entertaining as it is intellectually stimulating.

Created on PA Ballet, and presumably with the expectation that it would be performed at the Academy of Music (an extraordinary jewel of a theater), it has a more intimate feel than the blockbuster productions often seen. Into this smaller space Mr. Wheeldon has crammed considerable activity, but although crowded, the stage never looks overly busy. Some of the choreography that Mr. Wheeldon has created is merely passable (the polonaise in Act I, the Act III pas de quatre, for example), but most of it is both strikingly beautiful to watch and yet unpretentious and accessible at the same time. I particularly like his ‘village’ dance that opens the Act I rehearsal, and the way he weaves the dancers in the white acts in and out of the doors of the studio (the French doors, naturellement), giving equal emphasis to the ballet and the fact that it is being danced in the context of the Principal Male Dancer’s dream that takes place in a dance studio.

The piece is not only well choreographed, its production values are impeccable. For example, the production is marked by repeated visual references to Degas paintings – the dancers, costumed roughly as Degas portrayed them, move from one mini-scene to another, and occasionally – and subtly – assume positions that mimic the positions of the dancers in Degas’s paintings (including a “snapshot” recreation, seen through the mirror, of Degas’s representation of the dancers partying with ballet patrons). The impact of seeing the dancers through Degas’s eyes, and of recognizing the dancers on stage as the dancers in the Degas paintings and then seeing these paintings come to life, is extraordinary. Credit to Jean-Marc Puissant, Natasha Katz, and Adrianne Lobel, who created the costumes, lighting and sets respectively.

As the Principal Male Dancer/Prince Siegfried, Zachary Hench, a company principal, did a commendable job dancing the steps and partnering Ms. Fadeley. But in this production the ballet can’t happen unless the Dancer/Prince conveys through his acting and body language both the fantasy world of “Swan Lake” and the ‘real’ world of Degas sufficiently for the audience to feel his pain. In this respect, Mr. Hench excelled. The Act I pas de trois, which was relatively straightforward Petipa/Ivanov, was well danced by Ms. Bowman, Ms. Di Piazza, and particularly by Jermel Johnson. Amy Aldrich’s ecdysiastic Snow Maiden was danced both powerfully and irresistibly, and Meredith Rainey brought strength and conviction to his performance as the Gentleman Patron/VonRothbart. Ms. DiPiazza and Rachel Maher were alluring seductresses in the Spanish Dance and the Czardas, respectively (Ms. Maher’s flaming red hair alone would have been enough to arouse a stone), and Ms. Bowman, Ms. Gavula, Ms. Sadoshima, and Abigail Mentzer danced an admirable “Cygnets” that the audience recognized with enthusiastic applause. And two of PA Ballet’s principal dancers, Riolama Lorenzo and Julie Diana, portrayed the Queen and the Seamstress, respectively, with understated conviction: Their presence added an extra measure of class to the production. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not recognize the unusually and extraordinarily sensitive conducting by the PA Ballet’s Music Director and Conductor, Beatrice Jona Affron.

As the performance drew to a close, I wondered how Mr. Wheeldon would pull it all together – the dream, the dancers, and Degas. When Act IV of the dreamed ballet concluded, all the dancers, except for the Principal Male Dancer, exited the studio (where Act IV in the dream had taken place). As the Principal Male Dancer returned to a hazy reality, the dancers (the real dancers, including dancers who had just performed in the dreamed ballet), re-entered the studio dressed as Degas had portrayed them, creating an image of yet another Degas painting. One of these dancers, Ms. Fadeley, who was now just one of the ballerinas in a ballet studio in late 19th century Paris, approached the Principal Male Dancer. They turned to each other, and shared a knowing, mysterious, and eloquent glance. Two larger than life characters in a ballet; two performers in a dream, two dancers in a Degas-inspired studio. The curtain came down, I pumped my fist silently into the air, and said under my breath: “He nailed it!”

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