Swan Lake,Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet and Orchestra, Zellerbach Auditorium, Berkeley, CA, April 8, 2006
“The arms describe the steps the feet take.” When I heard those words from my ballet teacher, Richard Gibson, they resonated for me immediately, awakening a kinesthetic memory from my earliest port de bras. I was five years old, ranged with my “baby class” mates in front of the mirror of Mme Nina Anderson’s Dance Academy studio above a billiards parlor, on Bainbridge Avenue in the Bronx. She was demonstrating, and I could not take my eyes off her eyes and how they “drank” what they saw of her own arms moving in the mirror. “Arms,” she pronounced deliberately but liltingly, in a Swedish accent. “Always first the arms!” Staged by the pre-eminent ballerina, Natalia Makarova, the Tchaikovsky Perm Ballet and Orchestra’s “Swan Lake,” is a company led by its arms.
Much has been taught about arms since I stood in front of that mirror 53 years ago, and the best of it is captured in the work of the Perm Ballet. The Tchaikovsky score, conducted masterfully by Valery Platonov, moves from the limpid, plaintive strains of its overture to a full-out crescendo, as the curtain rises on a scrim bearing an enormous icon-like mask of Rothbart, the evildoer who has cast a spell that the characters in this story will contrive to see broken at the cost of their young lives. Guests arrive at the lakeside glade where Prince Siegfried ( Alexy Tyukov) celebrates his coming-of-age birthday. The Queen Mother (Galina Dubrovina), wearing a sumptuous silver sequined costume and crown, presents him with a bow and arrow and a medallion on a chain. When she extends her arm to tap her ring finger urgently, nobody can mistake the gesture for anything but a pointed reminder that it is high time that Siegfried find a bride—well, nobody but Siegfried, who has other fish to fry, or rather, fowl to fly. The corps work is shown off in the traditional court and folk-influenced steps, seen in the detail of the lifts, with dancers reaching their summits in one breath, feet flared in jumps, hands and heads tethered by “imaginary” strings. It is model staging and dancing—a living study guide for serious students of the art: Each dancer breathes the same breath before the arms prepare to move through the bottom arc of their sweep during the balancés, or Ekaterina Guschina appears to gain half the stage in a single grand jeté. There is then what is called a “beat” in theater parlance (a Malapropistic corruption of Stanislavski’s accented word “bit”), a pause between the change of the pace within a scene.
Guschina, Irina Rybkina and Sergei Mershin, (who dances the role of Benno), dance the Pas de Trois. They are dressed in celery green, and once again, it is like a trip to the studio, without losing any of the theatricality. We can see why the dancer needs turnout, so that the thigh, correctly placed, can absorb the shock of the three arabesque hops, which land on straight-knee legs with no plié. If the thigh doesn’t pay the freight, the knee will, and a career will end prematurely. The head and arm work in tandem. Send a snapshot of them to yours! Guschina’s first variation takes her into front and back attitude and then into changement and echappé and then changement hops on forced arch. Instead of the nearly-inevitable clunk, clunk, clunk, it flows, the seams between invisible to U.S.-trained eyes. Mershin’s variation begins with a drumbeat and a sisson, out of which he falls—the only flub in the three-hour performance. He’s back on track in a tornado-like double tour. He and Siegfried constitute the only evidence that this is the second cast. Siegfried can’t mix the chemistry required for his ambivalent-cum-passionate character, and Mershin, while brimming over with hail-fellow-well-met intentions, is nonetheless smiling relentlessly to camouflage the strain of a challenging role. In the coda, Guschina gives us brisée volés that, um, blow us away, usually a step men do better, but she’s just the kind of willowy dynamo who can credibly establish the equality of women in this domain.
Another “beat,” and we are in the grand march, with two lines of dancers, goblets raised in celebration. They are inspired prop choices, as it is hard to have mismatched arms when each hand is holding a goblet. Two raised goblets cry for symmetry! The effect is enriched when the forest glade darkens and hand-held lanterns replace the goblets, as the dancers pair off in a waltz. Siegfried dances an adagio before he actually receives his bow and arrow. Perhaps he is tentative as a means of demonstrating his dissolute frame of mind, but it is not dramatic enough in the face of a forest of trees spiked to descend like hanging moss. Ominous mists rise from the stage floor, the moon appears in the distance and Rothbart's bat-wing feather-lined cape opens and closes upstage left, as he insinuates himself into the story—ghoul-like—retreating instantly. If you are new to “The Lake,” you might wonder whether your eyes were indeed deceiving you.
The set extends its purview to the now-moonlit lake, a perfect time for the swan Odette (Elena Kulagina) to bourrée into view and then leap and land center stage. [It is curious that Makarova has made this choice. In her autobiography, she says that this entrance is the one by which all Odettes should be judged, and yet it is much less spectacular than in most versions, where Odette leaps in from the wings, as if alighting from flight.] While Siegfried is immediately drawn to her, which he indicates by running to her side, he seems to do so blindly, and it is not clear whether this is intentional or a function of the lighting on the stage, which may make it difficult for him to focus. He does not appear to fully “see” her until they join hands, their bodies drawn up en soutenu. She responds by breaking away in a mad fluttering of arms, as the music reaches a crescendo. Neither dancer notices Rothbart taking in these moments of intimacy and passion. Odette’s head begins to tremble, as her “wings” flap, and this is so dramatically powerful that the corps swans fluttering in makes total sense, registering the menace in a way that animals do when they intuit what humans don’t. Rothbart surveys the growing crisis, as the swans form their circle within a circle, deployed in front-to-back port de bras that add a dimension of depth to the motion of their arms. The entire shoulder of each dancer rotates to bring the arm forward, then back, as they move from their circles to two straight lines. The arms then shift to classical poses, with the hand of the raised arm “winged” to match the winged foot on the same side, where the knee of that leg rests against the back of the knee of the standing leg. It is stunning, as is the music, with organ tones rising up out of violins helped by trumpets and flutes. This is followed by a pas de chat/sauté arabesque waltz by a coryphée of seven swans, the duet, and then Odette’s solo variation.
While Kulagina works from the inside out, her ballonés in this instance did not extend all the way out, and were not held. She worked her head in a way that looked imitative and posed, as if the process hadn’t become hers yet, and her piqué turns were listless, as if her spotting was off.
The Four Cygnets exercise subtlety in the “traveling” of their eyes and heads, even as they bang out the footwork. That shared first breath prevents the variation from seeming over-rehearsed, as it can sometimes look. The waltz of the Three Big Swans features movements that are so daringly large that you can become anxious that they may tour jeté themselves off the edge of the proscenium and into the orchestra pit. They don’t. A harp solo announces Siegfried’s entrance, and the pas de deux begins with Odette’s long penchées, scissor-legged lifts and long cambrés back. The pair warms up, as their passion heightens. It makes you wonder whether they held back earlier in order to make the most of this moment. If so, it is too bad, because turning down the flame shouldn’t require restricting technique. As the partnering improves, a clear demarcation develops between the lofty lifts and carefully-placed steps on the floor. Everything is engaged, and the Kulagina’s ballonés are now stretched to their maximum. She is very present, her eyes staring fixedly straight ahead, like a bird’s. The imaginary strings between fingers and the crown of her head are singing! She begins a petite battement with one foot that fairly shimmers, as her held arm moves into a port de bras that points the way to a long, slow developpé. The turns are still a little balky, and it is puzzling that they don’t speed up until the final act, when they become downright fiery.
Act II opens with rising candelabras, taking us to the party where the prince meets the candidates for betrothal. Siegfried’s costume changes here from all white to white tights and a black velvet tunic, embroidered with gold. Odile’s entrance with Rothbart is frenzied, and this is perhaps Kulagina’s most convincing moment as the doppelganger of Odette. She is dressed in black, her tutu embroidered with sequins that pick up the motif of the Rothbart mask that opens each act.
The Spanish variation is a fan dance, punctuated with the castanet music that rises out of the orchestra pit, and is marked by springboard backbends and adroit footwork. The Hungarian is slow, deliberate and pavanne-like, with goose-step extensions, and toes turning in before the men’s boot heels click, then moving into a Czardas that is high-toned and high-stepping. The Neapolitan gives us tambourines held by the women and a cornet coming up from the orchestra, while a single male dancer carries a mandolin, and a mock Tarantella steers the fast paced hops. The final Mazurka brings in the dancers dressed lushly in indigo blue velvet, the men in tricorn hats, offering a triumphal finale.
There is something in the Siegfried/Odile pas de deux that makes Odile look like a spider woman in a “Won’t you come into my parlor?” sort of way. As she promenades with Rothbart and then hastens back to Siegfried, there is a new chill in her épaulement that she has presumably “caught” from her exposure to Rothbart, who sweeps across from behind and lifts her, before (almost) exiting. We catch a glimpse of Odette on the lake, taking it in. In his solo variation, Siegfried doesn’t give us big, powerful tricks, as you might expect his new passion to inspire. Odile’s solo variation lacks attack, which she might have been able to harness had she remained more faithful to her perfidious, and deceitful persona. The fouettés remain placed up to the last eight and then begin to travel downstage. Both partners gain strength in the Grand Allegro and Kulagina shows us that she does have speed to spare in her turns during the manège. In proposing to Odile, Siegfried offers her a bouquet of white flowers. She accepts them, and then in a gesture of naked betrayal, throws them in the air so that they scatter on the stage like so many broken promises. Odette appears onstage this time, ending the dénouement.
Act III brings 24 white swans back in concentric circles, reprising their upset, forming lines and breaking out. What takes place on that small stage is so frantic and aviary that it looks like the aftermath of a pillow fight. In the wake of Siegfried’s betrayal, all bets are off, and that seems to free both partners to find their swan song passions—lush, full-out and unstoppable. Rothbart appears, ushering in a swarm of black swans. The lake’s waters begin roiling—trouble ahead. Lightning strikes. Odette falls into the waiting arms of the Siegfried she has forgiven—no spells lifted, no bows and arrows. He carries her into the lake, as Rothbart dances his first powerful, impassioned steps, closing the evening’s performance.