David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
July 15, 2014
-- by Jerry Hochman
Bolshoi means ‘big’, and everything was BIG in New York last night. Big, torrential rain. Big lightning. Big flash flooding. Big thunder that you could hear inside the DHK Theater. And a Big performance inside the theater by the Bolshoi Ballet, which began its run of performances during the Lincoln Center Festival with perhaps the biggest of ballets, “Swan Lake,” its ‘biggest’ star ballerina, Svetlana Zhakarova, dancing Odette/Odile, and as Prince Siegfried, its biggest recent acquisition, American Ballet Theatre’s David Hallberg.
I have nothing but praise for the performances by the Bolshoi Ballet dancers. All, including Ms. Zakharova and Mr. Hallberg, were fabulous (although here Prince Siegfried is not the dominant male dancing character). The production, by former Artistic Director Yuri Grigorovich, is uneven, but overall I found it quite interesting. More on both later.
First, however, there was something else ‘BIG’ at last night’s performance: the Bolshoi Ballet orchestra.
Normally, if a ballet review focuses initially on the sets or costumes or conducting, it means that something’s wrong with the dancers’ performances or the choreography. That’s not the case here. But the orchestral sound and pace at last night’s performance was so refreshing it needs to be acknowledged up front.
What a pleasure it was to hear the Tchaikovsky score played so perfectly. From the overture’s opening through to the end, the sound was brighter, crisper, more thunderously alive than I can remember hearing at a “Swan Lake” performance ever before. And it wasn’t just the ‘Russian soul’ emerging in greater force when the Tchaikovsky music is played by a Russian orchestra. That may be the case – but it was also something more concrete: the pacing; the tempo. Under the baton of Pavel Sorokin, the music was alive. It moved – fast. Even the dancing in what is usually referred to as the ‘white acts’ was propelled forward, with an appropriate sense of urgency, as if delaying the next musical phrase a second longer than necessary would violate the composer’s trust. And, for once, the conductor repeatedly (and appropriately) led the dancers, challenging them to their maximum capabilities. Would that American conductors, particularly those at ABT, displayed less reverence to each note in the composition, and less deference to each dancer’s anticipated capability, and more of this Russian spirit.
I’ve seen Ms. Zakharova previously, but it’s been awhile – nine years – since her appearance with the Bolshoi in New York, in “Don Quixote” and “The Pharaoh’ Daughter” (and a year before that, as a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre as Nikiya in “La Bayadere”). She’s still a stunning-looking ballerina, even partially masked by ‘swan’ earmuffs, and still an extraordinary technician - strong as iron, with jaw-dropping extensions and leaps. Her legs zoom up like rockets, and her fluidity is unencumbered by bones.
That having been said, however, she displays little beyond this extraordinary technique. There’s a coldness, a distance, to her performance as Odette, and as Odile, that I’ve observed previously in other roles. Her characterization is limited to what’s conveyed in the steps. In a way, her portrayal was similar to that of Polina Semionova a few weeks ago in the same dual role with ABT. It was an extraordinary performance, beautifully and brilliantly executed, and one that I would see again in a heartbeat. But Ms. Zakharova’s Odette/Odile was one-dimensional. It was an image of a character (actually, of course, two characters), but it wasn’t of a ‘real’ character.
But then, this version of “Swan Lake” isn’t ‘realistic’ the way ABT’s production, staged by Kevin McKenzie, is. Mr. Grigorovich’s concept reduces the ‘swan’ part of the story to a dream. Essentially, while pondering his loneliness, Prince Siegfried dreams of something different; something better. In his dream, he succumbs to the pull of an ‘Evil Genius’, who apparently is a not a ‘real’ person, but a creation of the Prince’s mind. Within this dream, the Prince is led to a lake of swans over which the Evil Genius rules, falls in love with the swan queen, is tricked by a black swan into declaring his love for her, thereupon losing the swan queen of his dreams forever. When his dream ends, the Prince slowly walks away, Albrecht-like, wondering if it all was just… a dream.
I don’t know if this ‘dream’ concept is Mr. Grigorovich’s, or a derivation from a prior version (the program credits the libretto to him, after the ‘scenario’ by Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Geltser). But it doesn’t matter – it works to me because it facilitates the built-in duality between Odette and Odile as two sides of the same ‘ideal’ woman, which might well be a component of the Prince’s ‘dream’ of an ideal mate – perhaps more than in a staging that’s more ‘realistic’, where the duality may come across as more contrived and intellectualized. And it’s a theme echoed in the intriguing sets by Simon Versaladze, which includes a ‘cocoon’-like holding area, decorated so that the black swan and white swan appear to be virtual mirror images of each other. It also avoids the problem of what to do with Odette – there’s neither suicide nor a happily-ever-after. She just remains trapped in the Evil Genius’s lair; and trapped within Siegfried’s dream.
Aside from this overall ‘dream’ concept, this version is annoying – parts of it are really good, and parts of it not. The court dances that form the backbone of the first part of Act I (this production is divided into two ‘Acts’) are both intricate and lively, and the dances for the swans in the ‘white acts’ are beautifully staged. But the character dances are flat out fabulous. Each is led by one of the visiting princesses auditioning for the prince. So not only are the dances themselves not your typical forgettable copy-cat folk dances (here they’re dances ‘inspired’ by folk idioms), but they also serve as vehicles for the princesses to display their own dancing skill.
But there’s an overall stodginess to the production. Until the dances get going, whatever movement there is looks stiff. Part of it is Petipa, but it’s also the staging. Every position, every gesture, not only is fixed – it looks fixed. As a result, the ballet look artificial. Perhaps this works for Russian productions, but here it looks antiquated. And the concept of the “Fool” (the Jester), which I presume is adapted from additions to the original made by Alexander Gorsky, is particularly bothersome. It serves a purpose – the ‘tricks’ are done by the Fool (as well as, to a lesser degree, by the Evil Genius) – leaving the Prince to simply be princely. But to me the character of the Fool only emphasizes the relative rigidity of the staging around him, and detracts from the Prince – in effect, making him a more cardboard, and to some extent secondary, character.
As Prince Siegfried, Mr. Hallberg looked…princely. As I’ve previously observed, since joining the Bolshoi his partnering has improved significantly, and here his partnering was flawless. His solo dancing was somewhat more subdued (than in the ABT production, for example), but that’s the nature of this production. But when he did dance, he displayed a degree of enthusiasm previously unseen – Mr. Hallberg appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself, particularly during the pas de trois and the first part of the black swan pas de deux.
But overall, the Prince’s dancing was overshadowed by the Fool, whose bag of tricks overflowed – to the audience’s delight. Igor Tsvirko, a Bolshoi Soloist, played the Fool with appropriate androgynous swagger. But characterization isn’t the point of the role – the tricks are, and in that respect Mr. Tsvirko was spectacular.
The concept of the Evil Genius role, at least in this production, is quite different from ‘von Rothbart’ versions, whether Rothbart is a ‘human’ or some ‘creature’ (or, as in the ABT version, both). Here the Evil Genius is more of a force, albeit a humanoid one, and Vladislav Lantrotov, a Principal Dancer, was the embodiment of evil energy; the Prince’s worst nightmare. But other than looking evil and being allowed some bravura dancing, the Evil Genius is more the ballet’s bad boy – a foil to Prince Siegfried. And in the critical ‘black swan’ scene (the first part of Act II in this production), he’s just part of the woodwork.
Aside from Ms. Zakharova and Mr. Hallberg, the most interesting performances in this production were those danced by Siegfried’s ‘friends’ in the pas de trois, and by the five princesses. There is little in the way of emotion to the pas de trois – it’s ‘just’ dancing. But the execution was extraordinarily good. Kristina Kretova (a Leading Soloist), and particularly Maria Vinogradova, a Soloist, gave top notch, thrilling performances, and Mr. Hallberg appeared energized in their company. I would like to see Ms. Vinogradova assay other roles to gauge her acting ability, but based on her performance last night, she’s a superb dancer.
As I’ve noted, the ‘national dances’ here are brilliantly choreographed, and are vehicles for particularly interesting and exciting dancing by each of the princesses -- Yulia Grebenshchikova (Hungarian Bride), Anna Rebetskaya (Russian Bride); Anna Tikhomirova (Spanish Bride); Daria Khokhlova (Neapolitan Bride); and Yanina Parienko (Polish Bride). (Ms. Tikhomirova is a First Solist; the others are Soloists.) I particularly liked the Hungarian dance (a mini-Raymonda); the Russian dance (to music that the ABT production uses for von Rothbart’s Act III solo); and the smoldering Spanish dance.
The program does not identify the court dancers (in this production there are no peasants), the swans (except for the cygnets and ‘Big Swans’), or the character dancers, but the company as a whole danced very well – and, as I observed nine years ago (when the company was led by Alexei Ratmansky), looks younger and more dynamic than it had under Mr. Grigorovich’s leadership, when I first saw the company in New York. Except for stylistic differences, which of course are significant, the company now looks more….American.
edited 7/22 to correct identification of 'friend' dancers
Last edited by balletomaniac on Tue Jul 22, 2014 10:32 pm, edited 1 time in total.