The National Ballet of Canada
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
November 9, 2013
By Denise Sum
Copyright © by Denise Sum 2013
"Swan Lake" is a touchstone for any major classical ballet company and the National Ballet of Canada chose to open its 2013-2014 season with this perennial favourite. It is a pity, then, that the company lacks an interesting or coherent version. James Kudelka's vision of "Swan Lake" is overwhelmingly dark and morbid, but without nuance or context. Here, Odette is not a woman under a spell, but literally a swan. Siegfried is rather ineffectual, and Rothbart is a constant but banal presence. The gloomy tone is set during the prologue, where Rothbart (in the form of a winged figure or dark angel of sorts) is seen looking over the kingdom "to assume his place amid a broken and unsuspecting world" as the program notes tell us.
Kudelka takes several liberties in his staging, almost entirely removing the women from the first act, save the Queen and a "wench". He takes that scene away from the usual Palace setting and relocates the familiar waltz to the royal hunting ground. Rothbart is a pervasive and ominous figure, appearing and reappearing in different guises that seem arbitrary (nude thong with giant wings, green one-shoulder tie-dye unitard, and black muscle suit). Sometimes these changes work but often they do not.
More concerning are the gender dynamics that play out in Kudelka's "Swan Lake". In the hunting scene, Siegfried's male friends are portrayed as chauvinists who objectify and eventually violate the sole young woman on stage. Drunk and disinhibited, the men carelessly shove the wench around, using her for their own gratification and entertainment. The scene escalates and ends with a violent gang rape. Only in a very twisted imagination does one find "gang rape" and "Swan Lake" in the same sentence. It is one of the most uncomfortable scenes to watch in a ballet.
The theme of female powerlessness and silence continues throughout the production. In Act III, the princesses are ushered in and presided over by their ambassadors. They enter with large box-like tents as headpieces, covering their faces until they are removed just before their solo variations. They dance to appease their ambassadors and lure Siegfried, and then are placed on display on pedestals, as if existing solely for the pleasure of men. They look like show dogs. Mirroring the princesses and ambasadors' relationship, Odile is a pawn, manipulated and controlled by Rothbart. She has no will or thoughts of her own. Indeed, Rothbart barely leaves her alone, constantly whispering instructions to her. There is less of a seduction of Siegfried and she seems less "evil" than in other versions. One wonders if she fully understands what she is doing. Why Kudelka would choose to depict these kinds of gender relations is unclear. Is it so all the men are such misogynists that Siegfried becomes more likeable by comparison? That seems to be a stretch.
In terms of the dancers' performances, they fared well with the challenging and busy choreography. The male corps looked very well-rehearsed in Act 1 and the women moved as one in the white acts. The baby swans drew roars of applause as always. Nan Wang was a refined and elegant Benno, while Elena Lobsanova shone as the Russian princess. Etienne Lavigne was a menacing and authoritative Rothbart.
First soloist, McGee Maddox, made his debut as Siegfried. He is a strong, young dancer who has been given some prominent roles in the past couple years including Onegin and Romeo (in Alexei Ratmansky's "Romeo and Juliet"). His Siegfried, however, looked underdeveloped on opening night. Physically, Maddox has an athletic build and does not have the look that one would automatically associate with a prince role. Still, good acting and technique could have made him believable, but they were missing at this performance. His dancing appeared stiff and at times, shaky. The Act III variation was sluggish. His Siegfried was generic and difficult to relate to. He was not so melancholic, but rather seemed stubborn in refusing to pick a bride upon his mother's urging. The saving grace was that he securely partnered Xiao Nan Yu and the overhead lifts looked perfectly effortless.
As Odette/Odile, Xiao Nan Yu was simply divine and otherworldly. This was one of the first leading roles she performed and she has clearly grown into the role with time. There was a reassuring calmness to her dancing that seems to let her become totally immersed in the role. Her rippling port de bras, unforced extensions, and innate musicality created compelling moments and memorable afterimages. She tried to connect with Siegfried, but unfortunately there was little chemistry there.
Ultimately, Kudelka's "Swan Lake" is unsatisfying and unsettling. The NBoC deserves better.
Xiao Nan Yu and McGee Maddox with Artists of the Ballet in Swan Lake. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.