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New York City Ballet : 'Swan Lake'

by Jerry Hochman

September 15 and 17(E), 2011 -- David Koch Theater, New York, NY

“Swan Lake” is bulletproof. Once considered by many (including me, after my first viewing eons ago) to be a turgid and somewhat stodgy relic, “Swan Lake” has morphed into an artistic siren. Audiences flock to see it, thanks in large part to the popularity of “Black Swan,” and ballet companies able to present it benefit from the economic stimulus that high ticket prices and full houses provide.

Consequently, any attempt to critically evaluate a “Swan Lake” production – as I am about to do with Peter Martins’s version for New York City Ballet – is doomed to being considered even more irrelevant than usual. But at the risk of being accused of trying to kill the swan that laid the golden egg, “Swan Lake” productions differ in interpretation and artistic vision from company to company, and not all of them are as praiseworthy as others. And as brilliant as the NYCB dancers always are, they are hostage to this production’s misguided concept.

I saw two NYCB “Swan Lake” performances during last week’s sold out run at the David H. Koch Theater (I would have seen more had I been able to rob a few banks): One featuring Sterling Hyltin as Odette/Odile, with Jonathan Stafford as Prince Siegfried; and the other led by Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle. In different ways, each of these performances was a work in progress – partly a result of relative inexperience in the roles, but more a product of the constraints that this production imposes on what the dancers are able to create and communicate to the audience.

My usual complaint with “Swan Lake” productions is that they move too slowly for contemporary sensibilities – or at least my contemporary sensibility. For example, while the ‘court dances’ may display varying degrees of authenticity, to this viewer they often appear stodgy and uninteresting, and they weigh the production down. Similarly, the energizing effect of certain component dances or displays of individual pyrotechnics are frequently numbed by too much interspatial “dead time.” One reason I enjoy American Ballet Theatre’s current production as much as I do, even though it takes liberties with more orthodox presentations, is that it moves things along at a much faster pace than do ‘standard’ productions while still maintaining the ballet’s essential style and passion. This NYCB version, however, demonstrates that you should be careful what you wish for. By emphasizing speed and compressing more-or-less the same action into a narrower temporal space, this production transmits a sense of cold angularity that undermines the ballet’s essential Romantic style, creating an air of relative detachment that limits the ability of the audience to become emotionally involved.

Although it was originally choreographed in 1996 for the Royal Danish Ballet, Mr. Martins’s version appears based as much on the one-act “Swan Lake” that George Balanchine created for NYCB in 1951 as on the Petipa/Ivanov benchmark. That is, it is not a ‘new’ creation or reimagining of “Swan Lake” (like Christopher Wheeldon’s superb interweaving of the standard story into a Degas-inspired late 19th Century Parisian ballet studio in the production he created for The Pennsylvania Ballet); rather, it is an effort to make the standard “Swan Lake” more compatible with NYCB style by distilling the story to its physical and emotional essence and eliminating what may be considered to be unnecessary choreographical and decorative baggage.

In this version, the story is transported from its usual idyllic setting to a cold and dreary mountaintop swan aerie (there’s no ‘lake’ in sight – or at least nothing that looks like a lake) on some strange new world where no dancer has gone before, and whose only connection with earth is that the natives speak Ballet. The omnipresent curtains (act curtain and backdrop) created by Per Kirkeby, reportedly Denmark’s most renowned contemporary artist, feature jagged and elongated white zigzags that look like exaggerated strokes of lightning, which are then spread vertically across various irregularly-shaped blocks of muted colors. [It was a dark and stormy night…] These images, which are replicated on portions of the set and costumes, are striking works of abstract art – as if painted by Thor under the influence of Jackson Pollack. But the dominating ‘electric-charge’ images carry with them a perception of angularity and speed that is mirrored in the choreography.

Act I sets the standard for the piece. [In this production, what is usually referred to as Act I (Prince Siegfried’s castle) and Act II (first white act) are combined as separate scenes in “Act I”, and, similarly, what are usually Acts III and IV are combined as “Act II. To make it easier to follow, the ‘Act’ references here will be to the ‘usual’ four Acts.]

The Prince’s castle (at least, the part of it where the action takes place) is presented in an overall dull brownish tint that appears stark and uninviting, and the dancers are costumed in various shades of the same muted color-blocks (e.g., green, lime-green, turquoise green; brick, dark brick, reddish orange, orange). The Act’s lead male character is not the Prince, or the Prince’s tutor, or the Prince’s friend, but a hyper-kinetic Jester. [The muted color-blocks and the sense of detached intensity brought to mind a vaguely-remembered scene from a “Star Trek” episode where the crew had boldly gone to a dreary world where the natives, costumed like ancient Greeks or Romans, entertained them with a ‘court dance’ led by an energetic but dispassionate jester on a ‘stage’ with a similar color palette. To my addled mind, it appeared as if the scene, if not the entire production, was taking place on another planet, and that Scottie had beamed it up to the DHK Theater stage.]

Although it is not unusual for a jester character to appear in “Swan Lake” productions, in this version the Jester is given the lion’s share of the dancing, and he dominates the stage and everyone else on it (including the Prince). The music is conducted at a breakneck speed, which results in the Jester struggling to keep pace, which results in exaggeration to the already dizzying and jagged-edged choreography (appropriate for a jester), all of which reflects and reinforces the sense of angularity conveyed by Mr. Kirkeby’s artwork.

Aside from the Jester, the corps dances and court dances were executed to a similar pace, with the dancers, in typical NYCB style, racing to get to their positions in time. [This is all relative, however. A friend commented that the pace of Act I appeared, at times, to be too slow – maybe a result of the uninspired and repetitive choreography, which comes to life only when rescued by the delightful and talented nascent dancers from the School of American Ballet.]

This stylistic approach carries into Act II. Even allowing for intermittent moderation to permit the leads to briefly emote, the tempo is so fast that there’s little opportunity for character development, and when the production attempts Romantic style, it looks artificial. For example, to this viewer the ports de bras of the corps dancers at the end of various choreographic phrasing in Act II (when the dancers’ arms are raised overhead, then are moved slightly to the left of the dancers’ torsos, with the dancers’ hands pointed downward from the arms) comes across almost identical to the angular port de bras of the male dancers (in ‘toreador’ pose) in Act III’s Spanish Dance. These positions are not supposed to give the same impression, but in this production’s execution, they appeared to be too closely similar. To the same effect, the corps patterning in the white acts frequently eschews Romantic soft edges for angular images (e.g., patterns that look like angular ‘W’s, rather than smooth ‘U’s).

The production is not without its high points. The Act I Pas de Trois is relatively standard, but those changes that were made from versions I’m more familiar with look good and make stylistic sense. I also liked the patterning that Mr. Martins has provided for the corps in the white acts, even though they may not be appropriately Romantic. And although it suffers at times from unnecessary complexity (e.g., in the ‘second’ solo variation), the Pas de Quatre that replaces one of the character dances in Act III is a highlight of this production (as is Mr. Martins’s superbly crafted “Russian Dance,” which is analogous in effect to “Coffee” in Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”). The ballet’s final image of Odette boureeing offstage while flanked by parallel rows of swans and illuminated by some celestial light, doomed to forever be a swan, is too reminiscent of the final image in “Serenade,” but it is sufficiently gripping, and is considerably more intellectually and visually stimulating than seeing Odette’s suicidal leap onto (presumably) a concealed mattress.

Allowing for the production’s limited opportunity for character development, and its compression of time and space that generally makes the movement quality appear angular, both of the Odette/Odiles I saw danced brilliantly, although not flawlessly.

Ms. Hyltin is one of NYCB’s most versatile dancers. Just when you try to type her as merely another NYCB quicksilver speed demon, which she is, she will dazzle you with her ability to reveal nuances of character not previously seen (in her stage persona as well as in the character she’s portraying). However, this production’s accelerated tempo allowed Ms. Hyltin insufficient opportunity to develop the quality of regal vulnerability necessary to make Odette work as a swan queen with whom the audience could emotionally connect. Ms. Hyltin got it all right (including keeping pace with the orchestra, and her wonderful swan arms), but her speed tended to make the rounded forms look angular (like a squeezed toothpaste tube). On the other hand, Ms. Hyltin used the speed in Act III to accentuate Odile’s sensual allure. She moved so quickly and with such evanescent allure coupled with unyielding attack that poor Siegfried didn’t know what hit him. Overall, and understandably, her performance was much improved over her debut in the role(s), which I saw last season. [As I once inartfully stated to a dancer friend, swans don’t hatch fully grown. The opportunity to see an extraordinary dancer like Ms. Hyltin grow in a role like Odette/Odile over time is a privilege, one which would be a welcome gift from other ballet companies as well (e.g., ABT).]

I doubt that Ms. Reichlen was ever an ugly duckling, but for whatever reason, the stage persona of the swan-like dancer that she now appears to be carries no sense of artifice or superiority: Rather, in whatever she performs, she looks and moves and (when the role permits character development) acts like the goddess next door. But her apparent sweetness can be a double-edged sword. To this viewer’s pleasant surprise, she came across as a natural Odette. Her innate ‘niceness’ allowed her to transmit the sensitivity and despair that the role requires, and that can penetrate a viewer’s heart. Unfortunately, the production did not permit her to effectively ‘milk it’. But as was the case with her Siren in “Prodigal Son,” her Odile lacked the sexual allure essential to make the seduction look convincing (or even like a seduction). [Indeed, the way the scene was staged, it appeared as if she made more of an attempt to seduce the Queen than the Prince (the way to a Prince’s heart is through his mother?).] In order to portray a sexual provocateur, Ms. Reichlen needs to act dangerous, and she’s not there. Yet.

The other characters are less clearly defined. Though not a nonentity, the Prince’s role in this production seems diminished; he’s more of an ‘everyman’ with a dominating mother than a danseur noble. Mr. Stafford and Mr. Angle each performed admirably, partnered unobtrusively, and did no harm. As much as I disliked the role of the Jester, the dancers who portrayed him were super. I preferred Adam Hendrickson at Saturday’s performance to Troy Schumacher, possibly because Mr. Schumacher was better at being annoying, while Mr. Hendrickson toned it down a bit. [But as good as they were, neither could surpass the incomparable Daniel Ulbricht, who I saw dance the role last season.]

Both Janie Taylor (accompanied by Ask La Cour) at Thursday’s performance and Rebecca Krohn (partnered by Amar Ramasar) on Saturday evening sizzled in the Russian Dance, with Ms. Taylor being more seductively intense and Ms. Krohn being more intensely seductive. [Had this viewer’s electrocardiogram been taken, it probably would have mirrored the spikes in Mr. Kirkeby’s artwork.] Lauren King, Ashley Laracey, and Christian Tworzyanski on Thursday, and Ashly Isaacs, Brittany Pollack, and Antonio Carmena on Saturday, gave commendable performances in the Pas de Trois, as did Ms. Krohn, Megan LeCrone, Savannah Lowery, and Chase Finlay, and Ms. Laracey, Erica Pereira, Ana Sophia Scheller, and Gonzalo Garcia, respectively, in the Thursday and Saturday Pas de Quatre. Kaitlyn Gilliland and Justin Peck danced the Hungarian Dance at Thursday’s performance; Georgina Pazcoguin and Craig Hall performed the same roles with more pizazz on Saturday. Ms. Pereira and Lauren Lovette, partnered respectively by Giovanni Villalobos and Allen Peiffer, lit up Thursday’s and Saturday’s Neapolitan Dance – Ms. Pereira with her effervescence, and with Ms. Lovette adding dramatic flair.

Perhaps at some point I will grow sufficiently accustomed to this version of “Swan Lake,” to be able to ignore its quirky idiosyncrasies and what, to this viewer, are its poor artistic choices (many more than I can accommodate in this review). But as I wrote initially, “Swan Lake” is bulletproof; any reasonably intelligent mounting of “Swan Lake” is at least as successful as the audience thinks it is, and the audiences at both performances were wildly enthusiastic (allowing for differences in degree between expressions of wild enthusiasm by NYCB audiences and, say, ABT audiences). In the end, perception matters, critical evaluation probably doesn’t, and resistance is futile.

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