American Ballet Theatre
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
January 25, 2017
by Ashley McKean
copyright © 2017 by Ashley McKean
American Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake” is like a cherished, old pair of slippers: a bit soft, tattered around the edges, but with all the comforts of home. This version of the iconic classic — staged by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie after Petipa and Ivanov — has been no stranger to D.C. audiences since its world premiere here in 2000 (it was subsequently filmed for television at the Kennedy Center in 2005 and returned in 2009). Still, Washingtonians flocked to the theater on Wednesday night, seeking refuge in the familiar, yet mystical otherworld of “Swan Lake.” ABT’s production tells the well-known story of love, loss and deceit fairly clearly, uniquely including a prologue that depicts the despicable Von Rothbart (guised as a handsome young man) luring Odette and subjecting her to his curse. But this version’s much-abbreviated Act IV (which can look comedic without the right dramatic buildup), among other shortcomings, threatens to lessen the ballet’s impact, pinning its success on the ability of the dancers to fill the gaps. Although Wednesday’s central couple, while physically quite beautifu, didn’t fully live up to the challenge, the immaculate dancing of the ethereal swan corps, together with the powerful strains of Tchaikovsky’s score, gave the audience a magical escape.
American Ballet Theatre in "Swan Lake." Photo © Gene Schiavone
Cory Stearns’ handsome, unassuming Prince Siegfried danced gallantly but seemed oddly detached from the festivities of his “coming of age” party. The Act I birthday frolic was a visual delight, with costumes and lighting that created an air of youthful elegance, ushering in a feast of pleasantries presided over by Martine van Hamel’s warm, majestic Queen Mother. Prince Siegfried’s friends at times looked a bit sloppy — as if they could have used one more practice for the big day — but there were some standouts. Catherine Hurlin was immediately noticeable among the Aristrocrats for her strong technique and magnetic stage presence. Joseph Gorak’s charismatic Benno — whose merriment drew Stearns out of his shell once in a while — was the presence that keep the party going. His eloquently danced pas de trois with Sarah Lane and Skylar Brandt arrived just as the festivities started to look a bit too ritualistic, and became one of the most memorable parts of the evening. The trio complemented each other well, with young Brandt displaying crystal-clear beats and an innate ability to play with timing and musicality. Gorak sailed through his solo with lots of personality even if his jumps looked a bit labored at times. Lane’s pristine technique, generous port de bras and mature ballerina presence made me wish she would have a chance at Odette/Odile.
I hoped Stearns would awaken from his emotional slumber upon seeing his Odette (Hee Seo), but the two dancers are too similar to be well-matched: both are long and lean with perfect ballet bodies, and both are emotionally reserved. Soon after Seo stepped onto the stage in Act II, showing her supple, elongated limbs and beautifully arched feet, her Swan Queen projected an air of self-reliance that said “I don’t really need you.” Her finest interactions with Stearns were after an unusually tender first entrance, in the mime scene where she desperately laid out her plight before disappearing into a sea of swans. If her independent spirit worked initially, it prevented her relationship with Stearns from taking flight. (Or maybe she was just uninspired by his stiffness?) Their white swan pas de deux was beautifully executed and finely controlled, showcasing her elegant lines and his adept partnering. But she never allowed herself to fully trust him, averting her eyes as if to say “I can’t,” shivering away from him, unwilling to allow her destiny to be determined by his love.
The couple fared somewhat better in Act III, where Seo’s demeanor lent itself well to her transformation into the coolly seductive Odile, which seemed a natural progression from her Odette, almost giving away the secret. Their black pas de deux flowed nicely but ended anti-climactically when technical issues got in the way of her solo and the coda. Thomas Forster’s commanding Von Rothbart (disguised once again as a purple-clad charmer) escorted Odile to the ball and brought a welcome touch of humor to the beginning of Act III. He stylishly had his way with the Princesses, craftily dancing with each one before moving on to the next, flirting with the Queen Mother who seemed entranced by his spell.
Even with the evening’s disconnections, the magnificent swan corps was stunningly connected, moving with one voice to fill up Act II with mesmerizing presence and musicality. The four Cygnettes (Cassandra Trenary, Luciana Paris, Courtlyn Hanson and Gemma Bond) were remarkably coordinated, with each pas de chat executed to perfection. Paulina Waski and Christine Shevchenko as the big Swans danced expansively, completely in sync. Seo’s Odette looked her best when attending to her sister swans. One of the most touching moments came when she swept onto the stage as the swans hovered to the side, quivering in fear, their wing-like arms stretched overhead to shield themselves from Prince Siegfried. Seo boldly inserted herself in front of them and extended her expansive arms backwards to protect them, making a powerful statement of unity.
Photo: American Ballet Theatre in "Swan Lake." Photo © Rosalie O’Connor
copyright © by Ashley McKean