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American Ballet Theatre

'Swan Lake'

by Colleen Boresta

July 2, 2011 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY

After The Nutcracker, Swan Lake is probably the most popular ballet in the world. It contains both Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score and the penultimate challenge for the ballerina, the dual role of Odette/Odile. In 2010, because of the movie Black Swan, a much larger percentage of the viewing public became aware of the ballet Swan Lake. This Academy Award winning movie (which was just too creepy for my taste, but that’s a whole other issue) gave many people the desire to see Swan Lake live. It was standing room only at American Ballet Theatre’s July 2nd evening performance of Swan Lake.

Swan Lake is the story of Odette, a princess who is put under a spell by the evil sorcerer, von Rothbart. She is forced to live as a swan by day and can only be a young woman at night. The one way Odette can become fully human again is if a young man who has never loved before pledges his eternal love to her. The young Prince Siegfried meets Odette while hunting and falls in love with her. The Prince swears his undying love to Odette. At Siegfried’s 21st birthday ball, however, von Rothbart’s daughter, Odile, arrives. Von Rothbart has used his magical powers to make Odile look exactly like Odette. Odile seduces the Prince into declaring his eternal love for her. Odette, knowing she has now has no chance of ever becoming a woman again, breaks von Rothbart’s power by throwing herself into Swan Lake. Siegfried also throws himself into the lake, and the two lovers are reunited in the afterworld.

American Ballet Theatre’s current production of Swan Lake is choreographed by Kevin McKenzie after – way after – Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. This version of Swan Lake has several major flaws. There are two von Rothbarts, one handsome and seductive, the other looking like the creature from the green lagoon. The ballet begins with a prologue showing the two von Rothbarts turning Odette into a swan. Seeing Odette as a young girl at the beginning of the ballet takes away much of the magic of Odette’s entrance as the Swan Queen in Act II. The sight of the hideous von Rothbart squeezing a stuffed toy swan (after Odette has been turned into a swan) is so ridiculous that it’s embarrassing to watch.

Other flaws include the seductive von Rothbart getting his own solo in Act III. The solo makes little sense dramatically, and it leaves the audience wishing it would end so that Odile and Siegfried can dance the black swan pas de deux. Perhaps the most serious defect in the McKenzie Swan Lake is that so much of Act IV is deleted. Without a more complete final act, much of Siegfried’s devastation at his betrayal of Odette and Odette’ subsequent grief is lost.
Due to the incredible performances, especially of the two principal dancers, the July 2nd evening performance of Swan Lake retains its magic. As good as guest artist Polina Semionova was as Kitri in ABT’s Don Quixote earlier in the season, she is perfect in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Semionova is one of the very few Odette/Odiles I have ever seen who is equally wonderful in both roles. As Odette, Semionova has magnificent undulating swan arms which seem to be almost boneless. Her splendidly pliable upper body shows clearly the despair Odette feels after Siegfried has betrayed her at the ball. The velvety flow of Semionova’s musical phrasing is heavenly. Her deep arabesques seem to go on forever. Semionova’s every movement as the Swan Queen is plush and luxuriant. Her petit batterie near the end of Act II, where her legs crisscross in the air, are astounding.

As Odile, Semionova revels in her seductive powers. She truly glistens like the most radiant diamond. Her hard edges are occasionally softened so that the Prince will think she is the “true” Odette. During the coda of the black swan pas de deux, Semionova whips off a series of double and very fast single fouettes. Her turns are in time with the music and there is only the tiniest bit of traveling.

Marcelo Gomes is Prince Siegfried, replacing the injured David Hallberg. I love Hallberg as a dancer, but no ballet dancer inhabits a role as completely as Gomes. This is certainly the case with his Prince Siegfried at the July 2nd evening performance. Gomes’ dancing is also sensational, especially his high, soaring leaps with the plushest of landings. He is also an ardently attentive partner and his chemistry with Semionova is spellbinding.

Other dancers stand out as well. As the handsome von Rothbart, Sascha Radetsky is much better than when I saw him perform this part last year. He is not up to the level of Marcelo Gomes as the seductive sorcerer, but Radetsky’s characterization is effectively evil. His dancing is notable for high jumps and clean, soft landings.

In the pas de trois in Act I, Daniil Simkin again shows his unbelievable elevation and incredible ballon. Maria Riccetto is exquisitely dainty and Stella Abera shines with crisp musicality and vividly vibrant dancing.

The all important female corps in the white acts (Act II and the sadly abbreviated Act IV) dance in splendid tandem with the music and each other. Karen Uphoff and Melanie Hamrick’s lyrical phrasing as the two big swans is lovely to see.

Tchaikovsky’s transcendent score is well performed, except for the violin solo during the Act II pas de deux. It is not played at the level which I’ve come to expect from the ABT orchestra.

In spite of the weaknesses, it was an incredible evening at the ballet. I do hope, however, that American Ballet goes back to performing David Blair’s Swan Lake, which they danced before 2000. Swan Lake is a rich and powerful ballet and it deserves the best production possible.

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