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American Ballet Theatre

'Swan Lake'

by Jerry Hochman

June 27m, 27e and 30, 2012 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, NY

When all is said and done, the success of any performance of “Swan Lake,” or any other ballet for that matter, boils down to the quality of the performances. Certainly the choreography provides the essential framework, and this version, choreographed by American Ballet Theater’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie (‘after’ Petipa and Ivanov), is what this viewer considers to be Mr. McKenzie’s best work. But the differences from one performance to the next are in the quality of the execution and in the characterization that the dancer/actors provide. Unless one has never seen it before, one doesn’t just go to see “Swan Lake”; one goes to see Makarova’s “Odettle/Odile”, or Baryshnikov’s “Prince Siegfried.” So rather than focusing on the production, this review will focus on the three of last-week’s performances that I was able to see: Isabella Boylston’s Odette/Odile and Daniil Simkin’s Prince Siegfried at the Wednesday matinee (both were debuts); Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes on Wednesday evening; and Polina Semionova and David Hallberg on Friday.

Ms. Boylston’s and Mr. Simkin’s performances were the most important. There has been a great deal of ink spilled over the past few years (including by this viewer) regarding ABT’s failure to promote growth from within. So providing this opportunity to two of its soloists, in debuts for each, is a major event. That neither was particularly successful is almost beside the point; that they were given the opportunity is. But that’s a discussion for another day. For this review, their performances deserve to be evaluated on their merits, and in the context of their relative experience.

As I’ve previously written, Ms. Boylston is not a cookie-cutter ballerina. She doesn’t possess the stereotypical beauty or delicacy that comes immediately to mind when one thinks of a ballerina. What made her stand out from the first time I saw her dance (a few years ago in an otherwise forgettable ballet by James Kudelka called “Desir”) is a combination of power and attack and fearless self-confidence that commands attention, a quality that she continued to display in more classical assignments. I once described her to a friend as a ‘take-no-prisoners-ballerina’: whether intentionally or not, she dominates other dancers unfortunate enough to share the stage with her. It did not surprise me that a week after I wrote a review that focused on her last year she was promoted to soloist. And although I was surprised that she given the opportunity to dance Odette/Odile, at the Met no less, over others with more experience, it did not surprise me that she was considered for the role: she has the strength and confidence to carry it.

Her debut, however, while promising, was not entirely successful. I had anticipated, based on her stage persona, that she’d be one of those rare ‘natural’ Odiles, but that her Odette would be problematic. I found her Odette to be better than I’d anticipated, and her Odile not quite as strong as I’m certain she can do. Overall, while there were flairs of excellence (her Act II entrance, leaping onto the stage, was spectacular; her struggle to avoid being pulled away from Siegfried at the end of that Act was very good), most everything else was tentative. And there was no emotional depth – her Odette was relatively stone-faced melancholy, and her Odile, though better, lacked the magnetism essential to be a seductress. She clearly was focusing on getting the steps right, and limited her characterization and nuance.

But in context, I found her performance to be very promising. I didn’t see any sense of a lack of ability – only a lack of experience. This is the way it’s supposed to be: as I said once to a ballerina friend, swans aren’t hatched fully grown. Most of the ABT Odette/Odiles we see in New York, even for debuts with the company, are by dancers who have danced the role previously with other companies (e.g., Veronika Part; Diana Vishneva); have had out-of-town ‘try-outs’, or have honed their skills over a significant period of time as a soloist. There are exceptions (Cynthia Harvey’s debut, for example), but I don’t expect perfection, or even close to it, first time out.

My reaction to Mr. Simkin’s debut is not as optimistic. Although I suspect that others saw more promise in his performance than in Ms. Boylston’s, I don’t share that opinion.

There is no denying Mr. Simkin’s prowess. He is an extraordinary technician – I doubt that anyone in the company can execute with the combination of control and explosiveness and overall excellence that he consistently demonstrates. But although Mr. Simkin is extraordinary in many ways, he’s not a prince, and I don’t know if any amount of experience will change that.

As Siegfried, and particularly in Act I, Mr. Simkin was less noble than stiff-necked, haughty, arrogant, and petulant. His conception of a noble was to stick his nose into the air (constantly, as if he doing so would make him look taller), to hold his arms stiffly across his body, and to look annoyed. His response to his mother’s demand that he find someone to marry was as if he were saying: ‘but mommy, I’m only 15 years old’. I didn’t believe it for a second – the nobility was grafted on (that his hair was styled to make him look more like Mikhail Baryshnikov didn’t help). Particularly jarring, to this viewer, was the contrast between him and his friend Benno (Joseph Gorak). While Mr. Gorak does not yet have the technical facility that Mr. Simkin has, he was more the friendly prince next door that you would like as a friend than Mr. Simkin, who you wouldn’t want to be near. At times, I felt that someone should walk up and tickle him to get him to loosen up, but I doubt that there’d have been any takers.

Mr. Simkin’s debut wasn’t without strong points. Aside from his technical ability, he provided flawless partnering (all the more remarkable since it appeared to this viewer that there was no stage chemistry between the two of them), and his attitude moderated as the ballet progressed: he appeared significantly less pseudo-aristocratic in Acts III and IV. .

As with Ms. Boylston, Mr. Simkin’s debut should be considered and evaluated in context. But, to this viewer, Mr. Simkin has more difficulties to overcome to be considered a danseur noble than Ms. Boylston has to become an Odette/Odile.

More experienced, and more successful performances followed on Wednesday evening and on Friday.

Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes are ABT.s best, and their performances were extraordinary. Ms. Murphy’s Odette/Odile was simply awesome. Her Odette was stronger than I recalled, her Odile was brilliant. Ms. Murphy has always had an unusual facility with turns and balances, and no dancer that I’ve seen can hold her center as she does. But what made her performance exceptional was not just her turns and balance, but her ability to develop and express character through her movement. That having been said – her fouettes were beyond belief. Not just ‘standard’ doubles and triples and arms up and down. She did swan arms as she was turning. Good ones – not just flapping. And she landed on a dime. And left the audience, or at least this member of the audience, laughing in disbelief.

Mr. Gomes is not ABTs most valuable company member (as I described him several years ago) for nothing. He demonstrated it again on Wednesday. Mr. Gomes has never been (at least from what I’ve seen over the years) the dancer with the most tricks, the highest leaps, the most perfect turns. But he brings so much more to every performance than just standard operating extraordinary technical prowess. He doesn’t need to ‘act’ noble; he just is. He doesn’t need to show off; he just does what he does. And what he does better than anyone is to make his ballerina look good, which he does instinctively and consistently. And he never phones it in.

Like every great performer, Mr. Gomes tries new things where the choreography permits. In this performance, I noticed that Mr. Gomes’s Act I ‘interpretation’ is different from what I recalled. While the prince is supposed to be somewhat melancholy, this usually takes the form of ‘something’s missing from my life.’ Mr. Gomes’s melancholy was more focused. He looked around, saw that there was a girl for every guy except him, and clearly wondered if he’d ever find someone to fill the void in his life. I’m not sure that I believe that the prince’s melancholy should be so specifically expressed, but that doesn’t matter. It was just another example of Mr. Gomes distinctive individuality.

This performance also provided another ‘Gomesism’. Mr. Gomes is unflappable. At this performance, toward the end of Act II, while he was partnering her, a button (or some other part of his costume) got caught in Ms. Murphy’s tutu. It could have been a disaster. Mr. Gomes somehow managed to get himself unstuck while continuinig to partner Ms. Murphy (it wasn’t easy – I saw that it took him more than one try), and never missed a beat. It was just another day at the office for Mr. Gomes.

But, for this viewer, the most memorable performance was by Ms. Semionova last night. Following her debut (with ABT) in the role last year, I found her performance to be remarkable. Say what you will about ABT’s ‘guest artist’ policy, her Odette/Odile this year has evolved into one of the finest overall portrayals I’ve seen. Not quite as flashy as Ms. Murphy’s, but every bit as complete a portrayal. Her Odette was sensitive, moving, and feather lite (not easy for a ballerina as tall as she is), and her Odile ranks with the best – indeed (except for almost - but not quite - overturning and missing the floor on her last fouette), she nailed it all. And for her partner David Hallberg – I wrote a few performances ago that his ability to partner Ms. Semionova would be a test of the improvement in partnering that he’s accomplished in the past year. He passed.

A few additional notes about these performances. Jared Matthews’s von Rothbart on Wednesday was the most devilishly delicious of the three I saw (the others were Alexandre Hammoudi and Sascha Radetsky); all of the pas de trois were beautifully performed [by Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko, and Mr. Gorak at Wednesday’s matinee; Melanie Hamrick, Simone Messmer, and Gennadi Saveliev (whose von Rothbart was sorely missed) on Wednesday evening; and Maria Riccetto, Stella Abrera, and Mr. Radetsky on Friday]. And in this version, one of the ‘aristocrat’ guests at the prince’s birthday party gets to dance solo with Benno and with the prince. The part, which is not insignificant, is not billed. The role was danced by Ms. Shevchenko on Wednesday evening, and by Cassandra Trenary at Wednesday’s matinee and on Friday. Ms. Shevchenko was deliciously good. Ms. Trenary was that and more -- she was both innocent and seductive, and she stole the scene. This past fall, shortly after she joined the company, I singled out Ms. Trenary as a dancer to watch. Her performances last week are further evidence of that. And it was particularly welcome to see Renata Pavam return, as the Italian Princess on Wednesday evening, following a long injury-induced absence.

The conducting for Wednesday matinee and Friday evening (by Charles Barker and David LaMarche) was well done. On the other hand, the conducting on Wednesday evening’s performance (by Ormsby Wilkins) was abysmal. Portions of the score that are supposed to be adagio were so slow as to be funereal (e.g., in one of the sections of Ms. Messmer’s pas de trois, her dancing, as well as her expression, looked pained as she tried to slow things down to the orchestra’s pace), and where the pace is supposed to be quick enough to lead the dancer to move faster, the orchestra’s pace was that of a runaway train (e.g., as perfect as her fouettes were, Ms. Murphy fell behind the music – not because she slowed down (she didn’t), but because the pace was ridiculously fast). The same problem was evident in his conducting of certain performances of “Giselle” that I saw earlier this season. It is a problem that should be addressed.

Finally, in a season filled with casting decisions that appear to make little sense, casting Sarah Lane as a cygnet, particularly at the matinee performance (and again on Friday), seems to this viewer to be particularly, unnecessarily, and inexplicably cruel.

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