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American Ballet Theatre

'Swan Lake'

by Jerry Hochman

July 1 and 2 (M, E), 2011 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

At times, a performance that is hyped almost beyond reason becomes evaluated as a consequence of its hype, regardless of the actual quality of the performance. Either it was great because it was supposed to be (it was so difficult to get tickets and they were so expensive, I drove all the way from Ohio, the Times wouldn’t have given her a featured article if she wasn’t…), or it was lousy because nothing could live up to the hype (she couldn’t possibly be that good; other ballerinas can do it better…). It is tempting, then, to dismiss any non-professional evaluation – and perhaps professional criticism as well – as the product of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that is not the case with Polina Semionova's performance as Odette/Odile.

I concede that I was prejudiced toward the negative camp – I didn’t think that Ms. Semionova could possibly be good enough to justify the hype or the three-rows-deep orchestra standing room (which I haven't seen since Kirkland/Baryshnikov), much less to validate taking a rare opportunity away from a deserving company member. I was wrong. In her American Ballet Theatre debut as Odette/Odile, Ms. Semionova delivered a remarkable performance, one that will be forever etched in my memory.

But before I go any further, it is essential to recognize Marcelo Gomes, her Prince Siegfried.

Ms. Semionova’s partner this evening was supposed to have been David Hallberg. Mr. Gomes was supposed to have been Prince Siegfried to Julie Kent’s Odette/Odile this afternoon. But it was announced late last night that Mr. Hallberg was injured. Mr. Gomes was quickly reassigned to partner Ms. Semionova in the evening performance, and Jose Manuel Carreno, who retired the previous night, was ‘unretired’ to partner Ms. Kent. Aside from what this says about the thinness of ABT’s ranks of reliable danseurs, Mr. Hallberg’s injury may have been the best thing that happened to Ms. Semionova. Although they work well together – as seen in her "Don Quixote" with ABT earlier this season – Mr. Hallberg had difficulty lifting her at that performance, and if he’d had the same difficulty this evening, Ms. Semionova’s performance may not have looked as fabulous as it did.

As I’ve written previously, in this viewer’s opinion Mr. Gomes is the most valuable member of the ABT roster. Tonight he took his significance for the company to an even higher level. I don’t know how much time Mr. Gomes had to rehearse with Ms. Semionova, but he did what he had to do, and he provided partnering that was impeccable, and lifts that were astonishingly perfect – in addition to handling his own role with his usual aplomb. There were no ‘Gomes-moments' this time (when the semi-permanent twinkle in his eyes seems to impel him to play with his role, with the dancers around him, and with the audience, as if to demonstrate how secure and unpredictable and genuinely unique a performer he is) – it was a very serious performance, and Mr. Gomes was clearly determined and devoted to making his ballerina of the night look good – which he does better than anyone else. I’ve never seen Mr. Gomes quite so resolutely focused before, and I’ve never seen him work so hard. If there were a Congressional Medal of Honor for danseurs, Mr. Gomes earned it tonight. And the packed house knew it, and Ms. Semionova knew it. Normally, the lead ballerina is brought a bouquet of roses following her performance during the initial curtain calls, and she usually picks one rose out of the bouquet and gives it to her partner. Ms. Semionova gave Mr. Gomes the entire bouquet. It’s a little scary to think that at some time in the future ABT will no longer have Mr. Gomes to rely on.

But this was Ms. Semionova’s night, and her performance, on its own, merits celebration.

In the course of my review of Ms. Semionova’s “Don Quixote,” I noted her upcoming “Swan Lake,” and predicted that, with her natural sensuality and physical attractiveness, she might be a very good Odile. Her Odile met my expectations; indeed, hers was one of the best Odile’s I’ve seen. She was a temptress and a tease; she didn’t overact (she didn’t need to); and nothing in her characterization seemed forced. On the contrary, Ms. Semionova knew the power that she had; and she danced Odile as if she’d spent much of her post-pubescent life either beating boys away with a stick or manipulating those she allowed to get close to her. I’d like to see her turn up the temperature in the future – her Odile sizzles, but it doesn’t quite melt ice yet. That said, her Odile now is more than sufficient to be the irresistible sexual force that it has to be.

For this viewer, however, Ms. Semionova’s Odette was a pleasant and significant surprise. While she possesses an innate regality, she appears too naturally powerful and dominant to be able to convey the Romantic corporeal lightness, sensitivity, and vulnerability that the role of Odette requires. But she did it all – she looked light enough to fly (thanks in large part to Mr. Gomes), she was remarkably vulnerable, and perhaps most importantly, she was completely believable (she communicated her love for Siegfried more clearly than I remember in any prior Odette; she loved him as much as he loved her). The musical pace in the white acts was unusually slow – obviously to accommodate Ms. Semionova’s elegant and elegiac legato phrasing – but Ms. Semionova packed so much emotional overlay into her controlled movement that the slow-pace never seemed overly wearisome – just overwhelmingly intense. And her performance was more than exquisitely executed steps – for someone so young to display as much nuance as she did is remarkable.

But her performance was not just about acting and nuance – it was danced magnificently (again, with great support from Mr. Gomes). Beautiful clean lines, extensions that went on forever, and rock-solid balances and fouettes (by my unofficial count, a triple to start, then 9 doubles, about 6 singles, another double, and more singles, ending in a triple – I think she did somewhere between 33 or 35 all told, nailed to the floor).

Ms. Semionova’s Odette/Odile was not perfect (whatever that means). She doesn’t have the speed (in her pique turns, for example) that other Odiles display, which is understandable because she’s so tall (though dancer-thin, she looks to be at least as tall as the tallest corps dancer in this performance, who I’ve seen off stage and would guesstimate to be about 5’8”), and her mime is muddy. As one friend, a former principal ballerina, recognized, she still has room to grow. And it is no criticism to observe that she’s not yet in the same league as Diana Vishneva. But considering where she’s starting from, she could end up being one of the great Odette/Odiles of this generation.

Discussing any other performances in the context of this review would seem unnecessarily dismissive. It isn’t meant to be. Veronika Part’s Odette/Odile on Friday evening was up to her usual extraordinarily high standards, and her Siegried, Cory Stearns, did a commendable job. That said, however, he didn’t appear to inspire the confidence in Ms. Part that would have been necessary to take her performance to an even higher level (translation: give Ms. Part a partner in whom she has unwavering confidence so she doesn’t feel the need to hold back. Can Mr. Gomes be cloned?).

Julie Kent’s Odette/Odile at Saturday’s matinee was earnestly done, and had moments of brilliance, but her performance was more brittle than fragile, and she lacked the strength and flexibility that a less experienced dancer might have been able to provide. On the other hand, Mr. Carreno has lost some of his ballon, but he remains a considerate and capable partner, and his turns are still the stuff of legend. Jared Matthews was a more appropriately venomous bad-boy von Rothbart (sans lizard suit) than either of the other portrayals I saw, and his Benno was superior as well (it’s in the partnering). Mikhail Ilyin and Joseph Gorak performed a memorable Neapolitan dance, and although all the pas de trois individual performances merit praise, Misty Copeland was a revelation – yet again. She danced with natural vivacity, confidence, and relish; no pasted-on smile or extraneous effort. Ms. Copeland is terribly underused (as are many other ABT soloists). And I must acknowledge Susan Jaffe and Nancy Raffa’s turns as the Queen Mother – they provided additional class to what already is a very classy production, and it was good to see them on stage again.

Finally, the corps is the glue that holds this and other productions of “Swan Lake” together. At every performance that I saw, the ABT corps, both as the highly competent individual dancers they are as well as being part of a greater whole, was super glue.

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