New York City Ballet
The David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
September 17, 18, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Popkin
Headlining the first two “Swan Lakes” of New York City Ballet's fall season, Sara Mearns and Ashley Bouder were as different as Odette and Odile. On opening night, Mearns and Jared Angle danced full-tilt and with raw emotion. Working against expectations the second night, Bouder and Andrew Veyette were cooler and more formal. Yet both ballerinas seemed to succeed by dancing their own Swan Lakes and largely ignoring the production’s cartoonish designs and mise-en-scène.
Mearns became a star in the dual role of Odette/Odile when she was plucked from the corps to dance it in 2006. The role suits her physique, facility and temperament. Yet Odette has always come to her more naturally than Odile and her black swan pas de deux has been weaker than her white acts. The problem has been keeping her tall, long-limbed body under control at high speed – or it was until Tuesday night, when she danced the black act with a finish and confidence that elevated the theatrical impact of this scene to the level of her other acts.
Modulating her dynamics as she went, Mearns built the scene to a dramatic crescendo. Starting with balances on pointe, she held very still in retiré, seeming to hypnotize Siegfried – a cobra poised upright in front of her prey. The audience fell under her spell as well. Yet taking her cues from the flowing rather than intense music that followed, she cooled down in the partnered, petit allegro passages that ensued. A breathtaking series of supported arabesque penchées came next, where she repeatedly dove for the floor, sinuously wrapping her working leg around her partner and presenting unforgettable lines. No one today has her physical drama in extensions. Even when she reaches her fullest extent she seems to keep moving a little, pushing her lines just a little further; it feels in the audience like the music is flowing through her body.
Her solo black swan entrance – probably the hardest thing for her - went off flawlessly with a circle of renversé turns in arabesque followed by piqués bursting with controlled force. When this segued to the proverbial circus “moment you’ve all been waiting for” – perfectly formed and effortless fouettés – she had the audience at peak excitement: or it would have been on any other night. But there was no anticlimax. Instead, the level elevated one final time to its fullest development for a climactic series of retiré-relevés. Angle’s partnering of her was perfect throughout; he facilitated her amazingly, despite some occasionally unfinished presentation of his feet.
Yet if Mearns’ opening night only marked an incremental step in her mastery of an iconic role, Ashley Bouder succeeded the following evening by making a clean break with her recent performances.
Bouder has been dancing Odette/Odile just as long as Mearns – she debuted in it during that same 2006 winter season – but it’s never been a natural fit. She’s a jumper and grand allegro dancer, while Odette/Odile is a role of few jumps and many adagios. Yet with her innate ability of turning even foreign material to her account she at first succeeded very well by getting drama out of her back in the adagios and above all by relying upon her extraordinary musical instincts.
Benjamin Millepied was her partner in the early years and seconded her musical interpretation wonderfully; together they turned those initial performances into gems of casting against type. But when he stopped dancing she had to resort to other partners; and perhaps her approach to the ballet also coarsened over time, until some recent performances looked exaggerated and staccato; and her stage personality also occasionally looked too strong.
But in Wednesday’s performance she broke the arc of that descent completely and concealed her formidable persona while dancing the role with the coolest of classical restraint. In fourteen years of watching Bouder dance, I’ve never seen her hold back more.
The result of her surprising departure was a richly textured performance. She kept her expression neutral and distant; there was little or no flapping of wings. Her pauses and balances, the sense that she was riding the crest of the music, slowing things down and then catching up, were kept within strict parameters. Above all the positions and lines were perfectly finished in a text-book, almost Vaganova style. She looked moreover to be in the best physical shape of her career, with articulate shoulders and long elegant arms as taut as rope. It even looked like she’d made the costume more flattering by trimming back the feathered headdress, and lifting it higher on her coiffure, so as better to set off her eyes and face: the kind of refinement an experienced ballerina learns to achieve.
But the best thing she may have done all evening was the acting, where she managed to convey for a few brief moments near the end that Odette and Siegfried had a real chance to escape from their doom. This came after her Odette had forgiven Siegfried and thus broken Von Rotbart’s spell. Here, where most other ballerinas move swiftly into a tragic farewell, Bouder interpolated a few vivid moments of intense anxiety as her character frantically scanned the wings for an exit. With the corps de ballet swirling about and the music rising to a crescendo, she was looking this way and that in intense agitation; and you felt – unaccountably and even after watching a hundred other “Swan Lakes” end tragically – that maybe this time things actually could end differently.
Only after that agitated scanning, when the orchestra dropped in volume and the plucked harps came up, did she give in. But then, after bending over and embracing Siegfried in a penchée as he knelt on the floor, it looked like an electric current went through her body. Jolted upright, everything in her face except the eyes became a rigid mask; but as she bourréed backwards into the wings, you’d have sworn her eyes were weeping real tears amongst features that were otherwise fixed. You won’t see a better piece of dance acting.
Veyette, who had also been relatively stylized earlier in performance, let loose at the end emotionally too, collapsing onto his knees and staying there, his face buried in his hands, well before the curtain fell. It made the ballet’s conclusion read even more like “Giselle” than usual. He looked like Albrecht; another prince bereft of an angelic savior.
Both nights featured some brilliant ornamental dancing in secondary and character roles, especially the pas de quatre, where Tiler Peck, Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz were brilliant opening night; and where a taller cast of Megan LeCrone, Erica Pereira, Ana Sophia Scheller and Gonzalo Garcia brought out longer, more classical lines in the choreography on Wednesday. The show-stopping ensemble piece kicked off the second act divertissement with a bang both nights. Also very lovely opening night was corps de ballet member Lara Tong as one of the princesses in the pas de fiançailles. She danced with an airy lightness, stayed nicely centered while still moving on a large scale, and showed impressive control of her legs from the hip, while presenting her feet beautifully. The first act pas de trois was also a particular treat in the Bouder cast when danced by Lauren King, Ashley Laracey and Antonio Carmena.
Photos of New York City Ballet’s “Swan Lake” by Paul Kolnik: Top – Sara Mearns and Jared Angle; Middle – Ashley Bouder and Andew Veyette; Bottom - Ashley Bouder