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Alberta Ballet

‘Swan Lake ’

by Kate Snedeker

March 23, 2012-- Jubilee Auditorium North, Edmonton, AB

It’s a cold, hard fact of ballet economics that full-length ballets pay the bills. Even sophisticated New York audiences tend to favor the likes of “Swan Lake” and “Romeo and Juliet” over mixed bills. However, in an era of shrinking budgets and rosters, tackling a full-length ballet can be a major financial and casting challenge. Fortunately for Albertans, the Alberta Ballet has met the challenge – and then some – with Kirk Peterson’s charming new production of “Swan Lake”. Complete with gorgeous designs, inspired dancing and live music from the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the ballet is a rousing success that should serve the company well in years to come.

Peterson was a long-time dancer and ballet master at the American Ballet Theatre, and his “Swan Lake” clearly reflects this influence. His staging of the original (Petipa and Ivanov) choreography returns elements that have been lost from many recent productions, including passages of mime. Though lacking the ‘cast of thousands’ available at ABT, Peterson deftly takes just thirty-odd dancers and creates a production that is bursting with life and energy. At least part of this success can be attributed to Peter Cazalet’s sumptuous sets and costumes (on loan from Ballet West). The richly colored sets, reminiscent of the ABT production, provide depth without intruding too far out on the Jubilee Auditorium stage. With Pierre Lavoie’s understated, sepia-tinged lighting, the ballet seemed to leap of out of the world of the unicorn tapestries, a world full of magic, fairy tales and tragedy.

The world premiere cast was led by two of the company’s top talents, Cubans Hayna Guiterrez and Elier Bourzac. A powerful dancer, Guiterrez sizzled as Odile, but has yet to find the right blend of delicacy and strength for Odette. There was too much of tendency towards forceful movement and harsh arm positions to make her Odile seem convincingly vulnerable. This was my first look at Bourzac, and he did not disappoint. Bourzac’s thoroughbred Ballet National de Cuba bloodlines were apparent in his gorgeous stretch and technique. Clearly a natural turner, Bourzac drew ample applause for his perfectly balanced releve at the end of his tricky Black Swan pas de deux coda turns. His stage presence was palpable, though in his otherwise impeccable Black Swan solo, he seemed to be constrained by the size of the stage, nearly stepping on the dancers seated at the back in his preparation and then seeming to dial back his amplitude to keep on the marley.

Guiterrez’s compact, muscular physique was not a natural match for Bourzac’s long, lean lines, but there was no quibbling with the smoothness of their partnering. What was missing however, was a sense of chemistry – their partnership was one more of comfort than of electricity. The one exception was the Black Swan pdd, where Guiterrez came alive, and drew the first passionate response from Bourzac.

Adapting the classic Petipa/Ivanov choreography to smaller flocks of swans is not an easy task, but Peterson’s deft hand made the reduction nearly inconsequential. He took a light hand in terms of adapting the original choreography, preserving most of the intricate patterns. The staging of the peasant dances in the first act was particularly successful, bringing a sense of joy and lightness to the stage. If there were any shortcomings, it was in a few odd hand/arm movements for the corps in the final act. Given this palette of fine choreography, the female corps stepped up to the plate and was mostly successful. As with previous performances, the corps danced with a refreshing unity of style, and looked - for the most part – well rehearsed. Cheers for a solid cygnet pas de quatre and a very synchronized swan corps.

The company’s strength has always been – in my eye – it’s male dancers, and their talent was on display in Swan Lake. As Benno , Yukichi Hattori had ample chances to show off his demi-caractare bravura talents. Unfortunately, the height difference between him and his pas de trois ladies (Asaka Homma and Alison Dubsky) was dangerously close to crossing the line into farce. It’s not that Hattori can’t handle the partnering, but that the distraction from the dancing the height difference causes. Equally, the noticeable height difference between the two lead swans was also jarring. Clearly in a small company, there are limited casting options, but given Hattori’s talent, it would be wonderful if the company could recruit some short women to partner him.

The male corps was flawless in Act 1, but the male quartet in Act 3 had an uncharacteristic meltdown in the Opening of the Court pas de quatre. At more than one point there seemed to be divergences in the choreography, suggesting the possibility of a last minute substitution or a slippery floor (which could also account for Bourzac’s hesitation).

Von Rothbart’s role in this production is fairly understated, but Marx Wax overcame the slightly campy costume (a kind of unpleasant mix of the ABT’s Swamp Thing and human Von Rothbart). He was particularly effective in the final act, battling with Siegfried for Odette’s heart and soul.

The ending is heavily influenced by the ABT version, and while this critic is no fan of the happy ending, Peterson stays well away from the camp. It is, in it’s own way, a satisfying ending to a fantastic new ballet. The production has room yet to develop, but it’s a terrific addition to the Alberta Ballet repertory and one hopes that ballet and the company will grow together in the years to come.

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s score with competence, but there were a number noticeable off notes (especially in the brass section) and very inconsistent tempos.

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