American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, NY
July 2, 2011
by Mary Cargill
copyright © 2011 by Mary Cargill
Life certainly isn't fair to poor Odette, a beautiful woman trapped in a swan's body, in love with a man who seems easily confused, and who manages to condemn her to death. But the most unfair part of her fate seems to be that she is constantly trapped in peculiar versions of "Swan Lake", which, in spite of the glorious White Swan pas de deux and ravishing music (not to mention the chance to do fouettes galore) do their best to undercut the powerful drama that Petipa, Ivanov, and Tchaikovsky produced. Polina Semionova, the Bolshoi-trained, Berlin State Ballet dancer appeared as Odette/Odile in a recent ABT performance. She is a tall dancer (on point, even taller than her partner Marcelo Gomes), with long, thin limbs, which she uses with elegant control. She was a majestic Odette, even in the silly prologue which can make her official white act entrance (carefully crafted by the old masters) so anticlimactic. Semionova's mime scene was a little fuzzy, and it seemed as if she didn't really know what the gestures meant. This isn't too surprising, since the story she is supposed to mime (the swan maidens swim in the lake made by her mother's tears, tears caused by the evil magician in the shape of an owl who has transformed her and the other maidens) is not the one that this production tells. In the gesture supposedly describing tears, she seemed to be saying "my face is covered with flies". Nor was it clear why she stopped Siegfried from shooting von Rothbart--it did look like (appropriately for this production) that she might have had a yen for von Rothbart and was protecting him, rather than warning Siegfried not to kill him or else she would remain a swan forever.
Her dancing, though, was limpid, smooth, and elegant. She didn't use her long, flexible legs to distort the choreography in any way, and she seemed completely in control, as if dancing these steps were the most natural way of expressing herself. She wasn't an especially vulnerable Odette (she is really too tall and too commanding for vulnerability), but she was able to capture the packed audience's attention. She has a rare capacity for stillness, of using her balances expressively, and kept the flapping to a minimum. She used her feet so well, and seemed to almost caress the floor. The little quivers at the end of the pas de deux really seemed like extensions of her heart. This was an abstract, but memorable Odette.
Her Odile was rapacious, triumphant and a bit distainful. Again, she used her feet so expressively and they looked like talons. Her fouettes were centered, fast, and frequently doubled. She had to fight against the production in this act as well, since most of the dramatic moments of traditional Swans are glossed over; despite the music, Siegfried doesn't see the vision of Odette, so Odile doesn't get to wave her away imperiosuly and vamp the final nail in the poor man's coffin. And Odile just rushes off quickly to the back of the stage after the pas de deux (obviously to change into her white costume), so doesn't get her dramatic and flashy exit.
Siegfried, too, loses out on the drama quotient in this production, but Marcelo Gomes makes the most of his chances. He is a textbook prince, noble, generous, in addition to being incredibly handsome. His dancing had a wonderful texture, combining softness with power; it was an outstanding performance. His first act Siegfried (despite the silliness of much of the stage business) was youthful and impetuous, but always courteous. He was excited about his mother's present, rushing off to show his friends, but then remembering to return to thank the Queen with a gracious bow. The droopy solo had moments of unbelievable pathos, as he dropped his arms and opened his chest; it felt as if he were showing the audience his innermost heart. It is such a shame that he couldn't dance in a better version, one that lets Siegfried hear the swan theme at the end of the first act calling him to his destiny, and giving him the final curtain, alone on the stage looking at the swans flying by. Instead he has to spend the overture to the white act prancing around in front of the curtain, fussing with the bow, chatting with Benno, and practicing his jump.
Benno, his buddy who also dances what is often called the peasant pas de trois (peasants and nobles are scrambled in this production), was Daniil Simkin, who danced with Maria Riccetto and Stella Abrera. Simkin's stage imagination is so impressive, and he can make the smallest gesture carry through the stage; his concern for his friend was generosity personified. His dancing, too, is, despite his small, slight frame, grand, though his partnering is still a bit iffy. He was a replacement for Gennadi Saveliev, so may not have had much rehearsal with Ricetto and Abrera (both on the tall side), but the supported pirouettes tottered noticeably.
The heavy, a dual role in this production, was danced by Roman Zhurbin (in green) and Sascha Radetsky (in purple). The concept of von Rothbart as sex fiend may be trendy, but it completely distorts the underlying mythology of the ballet, where nature (in the shape of an owl) is irrational and dangerous. Radetsky slunk around, but wasn't able to pull off the high-camp twirling that sends up the character the way Gomes does.
One of the most dispriting things about the "Swan Lake" is the absence of a coherent final act, even more inexplicable since ABT's earlier production used Ivanov's version with its beautiful, lyrical corps formations, echoing and reinforcing the feelings of Odette and Siegfried. How beautiful those swan circles can be, how metaphorically apt Siegfried's hunt for Odette as he goes from group to group, and how moving Odette's forgiving kiss should be. The poor swans in the current version just run around formlessly, and lie down on the presumably damp ground, while Siegfried and Odette rush from rock to rock, pausing for a few ungainly lifts, as if they had decided to rehearse "Lady of the Camellias". It is a bit like watching an episode of a reality TV show called "So You Think You Can Choreograph Swan Lake". Fortunately Tchaikovsky's resonant music carries the emotional story and the pure dance power of Semionova and Gomes let the beauty of the Petipa/Ivanov choreography shine. But how much more powerful their performance would have been if art were fair, and they were really dancing "Swan Lake".
copyright © 2011 by Mary Cargill