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New York City Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by Colleen Boresta

September 18 (m), 2011 -- David Koch Theatre, New York, NY

I have seen Swan Lake live close to 40 times, but I’ve only seen Peter Martins’ version of the classic ballet once. I was so disappointed when I saw Martins’ production of Swan Lake in 1999 that I vowed to never see it again. This year, however, I decided to give New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake another chance.

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 only way Odette can become human once more is if a young man who has never loved before swears his undying love to her. Prince Siegfreid meets Odette while hunting and falls in love with her. The Prince pledges his eternal love to the Swan Queen. At Siegfried’s 21st birthday ball, however, von Rothbart’s daughter, Odile, arrives. Her father has used his magic to make Odile look exactly like Odette. Odile seduces the Prince, who declares his undying love for her.
Odette forgives Siegfried for his unwitting betrayal, and the strength of their love defeats von Rothbart. Because the Prince has broken his vow to Odette, however, she must remain a swan forever. Odette is forced to depart, leaving Siegfried desolate.

New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake is better than what I remembered from 1999. There is, of course, the glorious Tchaikovsky score, which is played flawlessly by the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Unlike American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake, Peter Martins’ version contains a more complete Act IV. The audience gets to see the depth of Odette’s grief over Siegfried’s betrayal. The ensemble dances for the children in Act I and the swans in Act II and IV fit Tchaikovsky’s music perfectly.

There are, however, problems with New York City Ballet’s Swan Lake. Martins’ Act I contains very weak choreography. Except for the movements made for the children and the jester, it is devoid of any charm or life. Also the Act I pas de trois falls flat due not only to anemic choreography, but lackluster dancing as well.

Some choreography necessary to the storyline is missing from Martins’ Swan Lake. For example, when Odette first meets Siegfried, she fails to mime her story to him. If Siegfried lacks this information, then the rest of his actions make little dramatic sense. The ending of the ballet is not at all satisfying. Since the force of Odette and Siegfried’s love defeats von Rothbart, why is his spell over the Swan Queen not broken? Why aren’t Odette and her swans returned to their human forms? As well, a Swan Lake which ends without uniting the two lovers (at least in the afterworld) seems hollow.

The abstract scenery by Per Kirkeby does little to embellish the drama of Swan Lake. Most of the costumes (also by Kirkeby) are garish and off putting.

In the dual role of Odette/Odile, Sterling Hyltin shows a good deal of promise. As the Swan Queen there is a lovely lyrical flow to Hyltin’s dancing. Her birdlike arms as well as the gorgeous use of her hands convey Odette’s swan nature. However, her characterization of the Swan Queen needs more depth of feeling. I was not as moved by Hyltin’s Odette as I have been by the performances of ballerinas such as Polina Semionova and Gillian Murphy. Hyltin’s portrayal of the Swan Queen is strongest in Act IV. Her grief stricken white swan in this last act is heartbreakingly poignant.

Hyltin’s Odile is ultimately a disappointment. She begins the black swan pas de deux in a gleefully evil mode, promising to seduce Siegfried so thoroughly that he’ll forget Odette ever existed. Unfortunately, Hyltin falls short in the coda of the black swan pas de deux. She only does 7 or 8 fouettes, then finishes by doing a series of fast circular turns. By not completing the 32 fouettes, Hyltin’s Odile does not “seal the deal” (a phrase used by Gillian Murphy to describe her 2004 Odile taped at Kennedy Center) with regard to Siegfried’s seduction.

Jonathan Stafford is a believably tender Prince Siegfried. His dancing is academically correct, but lacks fire. More importantly, as compared to ABT’s Siegfrieds such as Marcelo
Gomes, David Hallberg and Jose Manuel Carreno, Stafford fails to take command of the stage. His Prince is missing both authority and charisma.

Other dancers stand out as well. As the jester, Troy Schumacher is all boundless energy and incredible leaps and turns. In the pas de quatre in Act III, Chase Finlay dances with an easy and unforced elegance. Finlay executes beautiful air turns with clean soft landings and has a real command of the stage.

In spite of this ballet’s weaknesses, it was an enjoyable afternoon at the ballet. I only wish Peter Martins’ Swan Lake had as strong a production as his Sleeping Beauty.

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