As I walked up the steps into Kennedy Center’s Opera House for the season’s opening of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake, my heart was fluttering as if for a first love. As indeed it was; classical ballet was my earliest passion. No other performance art form promises such a sweet anti-gravitational lift. How we need to be lifted up these days.
The ballet Swan Lake has everything to remind us that we need the arts more than ever, starting with the highest of professional standards based on hard work with a respect for its great tradition. The ballet also has Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, visual grandeur, the presence of a magnificent corps de ballet, and, at its center, a beautiful tragic love story to break open our hearts to the truth that love transcends powerful evil.
The Russian choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov first fashioned the work, as we know it today, based on an even earlier version (1877) mounted by the Bolshoi Ballet. Their Mariinsky company production of 1895 set the bar for which, all will agree, the demands of the dancing, in particular for the dual role of Odette-Odile by the principal ballerina, is the Mount Everest in ballet.
The role demands a split technique between lyrical soft port de bras, which must seem more like feathers than bones, and sharp, brilliant positioning of the arms; between a strong almost rigid lift in the upper back versus a spine that can melt backwards like an octopus tentacle; between footwork that must in one moment act like a mechanical sewing needle and the next seem to float endlessly outward and upward. In the ballet’s climactic Black Swan pas de deux, the ballerina must execute thirty-two dazzling fouettées, spinning like a top on one leg.
They say a true ballerina is born. Hee Seo was surely born as not only a ballerina, but half swan. Her arms seem impossibly long and execute extensions as dreamy as her legs. They become wings in one moment and suddenly a long graceful swan neck. When she takes her arms behind her they seem to fold into her back in a most avian way.
But this Korean-born dancer is also a genuine actress, essential in a classical ballerina. She fills every movement with emotion. Her bourées can be filled with fluttering agitation of a bird that wants to fly captivity, and then smooth out to allow her to skim across the floor in radiant bliss as if she is flying above a lake. She exudes such fragility that it is impossible not to fall in love and want to protect her as Prince Siegfried does the instant he meets her. In her, too, is a kind of spiritual nobility; her face could have been dreamed by Giacometti.
Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre, knows how to get the most from his dancers. He has managed two seemingly contradictory things in his reworking of this complex ballet: he brings out the personality of the different dancers and yet he succeeds by the second half in forging a seamless whole with his magical bevy of swans.
I was enchanted for instance by the first pas de trois, typically used to introduce three young dancers. The choreography for the two girls is designed to show off different strengths. Sarah Lane and Skylar Brandt take turns with their partner Joseph Gorak in performing for the Prince at his birthday celebration. They are well matched. Lane enchants us with the more lyrical moves while Brandt shows of her fast legwork and elevations. Lane has that special quality, a certain grace, and along with her proportions and her sheer joy for dancing, she radiates, reminding me of a young Margot Fonteyn.
McKenzie has also managed to rebalance the work by setting more strongly the premise that the work is about the court and especially the Queen who needs the Prince to do his royal duty: get engaged and go on to create “an heir and a spare.” Focusing thus on the Prince, it becomes Siegfried’s story. As the girls dance for him, presenting themselves as hopefuls, at the birthday garden party, Cory Stearns as the Prince walks downstage then crosses back and forth in front of the dancers. We watch him being set up and his growing yearning to flee to somethin wild and free.
Martine Van Hamel, as the Queen Mother, fills the stage with her presence and makes us appreciate the close and forceful relationship the Queen has with her son. Stearns and Van Hamel fill the old pantomime physical communication of the plot bits with gestural truth. Stearns allows us to see both his courtly arrogance and his discomfort at being boxed in to an engagement. I appreciated how the stage picture was filled with nuances and little side dramas.
Stearns is a fine dancer, which he shows off in an adagio full of both elegant control and pathos. He manages to convey with every developé into an arabesque how torn in two directions the young man is.
There is plenty of atmosphere throughout the show and doses of magic too. Zack Brown manages to create mystery right from the Prologue with a scrim and behind it, torturously twisted trees of the woods. Lighting design by Duane Schuler proves magical indeed, giving us the backstory of the Princess Odette, beguiled then abducted by von Rothbart, an evil sorcerer. He sucks her back into the darkness then, in an instant, transforms her into what I swear was a live swan moving under his tight grip. The darkness of this moment was as creepy as anything I’ve seen, reminding me of the televised series of Hannibal, and the character’s preying on young women of a certain type for his own ends. The two dancers, Patrick Ogle and Thomas Forster, playing the sorcerer in different forms, successfully exude how greed for power becomes evil and evil transforms the doer into misshapen ugliness.
There’s also plenty of gold light, mirrors and gilt, and clean, sharp character dancing that transport us back to imperial Russia. Having just attended the White Russian Ball, held annually in Washington, I loved it all.
But, let’s face it, we’ve come for the swans. The Cygnettes, that dance of the Little Swans which has been more parodied than any other dance in the repertoire, with its signature linked arms and pas de chats footies, was danced with tight precision by Cassandra Trenary, Luciana Paris, Courtlyn Hanson, and Gemma Bond.
The corps de ballet grew more and more elegant and blended throughout the evening. I was especially delighted by the execution of the cocked hands in sync looking like swan heads on alert, and when doing their bourees how the dancers turned their legs in slightly which made for a balletically uncharacteristic coccyx tilt, giving them all tail feather quiverings. This attention to detail gave the classic ballet new life.
In the final scene, Hee Seo and Cory Stearns made a breath taking team. They danced within each others’ heartbeats, hurled themselves off a cliff to refuse the dark force against them, then rose again to dance into a glorious sunrise.
Let American Ballet Theater and other great works continue to carry us into the light.
Swan Lake is performing at The Kennedy Center January 25 – 29, 2017. All performances have sold out.
Swan Lake . Choreography by Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov . Music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky . Conducted by Charles Barker with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra . Danced by the company of American Ballet Theatre . Sets and Costumes By Zack Brown . Lighting by Duane Schuler . Produced by American Ballet Theatre and presented at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.