The Model Critic Reviews the passion of ABT’s Swan Lake


American Ballet Theatre

Reviewed by Carlos Stafford, The Model Critic

A ballerina must possess many qualities, but balance, strength, and control are paramount.  Earlier this summer, Polina Semionova, guest artist with ABT, was truly flawless as Odette-Odile.  Her balance was deep-center to gravity, unfailing the entire performance; her understanding and ability to execute choreographic form and detail, and her unerring musicality, drew great moments of audience appreciation, while her shimmering arms were seemingly boneless, and otherworldly.

Take the beautiful pas de duex in Act Two with Prince Siegfried (Marcelo Gomes) and Odette, by the lake:  A study in simple passé, pirouette, arabesque en dedans, then en dehors, repeated with slight variations in all directions, creating a heroic, poetic vision of liquid smoothness between the lovers.

Siegfried finds his young, seeking soul in Odette.  He must choose a bride to become King.  As a human, Odette, transformed and trapped as a swan by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart, awakens him. Only able to become human at night, she tells of her plight: the spell can only be broken if a virgin youth swears his undying love. When they dance, Gomes dances Siegfried with the requisite passion and abandonment of an unbounded soul.  Semionova, on the other hand, plays Odette, not withstanding her powerful technique and luminous dance ability, with an emotional remoteness, an indecipherable heart. [Was that her choice?]  Gomes combines scintillating dance with passion, and projects a more fully realized performance. He communicates deep feeling with a virile, but open sensitivity, that is remarkably rare in a dancer.

photo courtesy of The Prince and the Swan blog

Two years ago, I must mention that Gomes danced Siegfried with the great, but now retired Nina Ananiashvili. Then, perhaps because he wasn’t so sure of his role, or for whatever other reason, he too was more of a technician, and didn’t communicate subtlety.  Ananiashvili, like Gomes in this Swan Lake, was the total package.  Even though at the end of her career, her technique faltering, but still blazing, her ability to transmit the complex feelings of Odette/Odile was fully realized. In her case, she always possessed passion, combined with impeccable dance ability, first seen when she made her American debut as Kitri in Don Q, at the New York State Theatre. And even though it’s not fair to compare dancers, since all bring special, individualistic talents, nonetheless, passion and depth of character rank high in how a performance is perceived;  it’s that ineffable quality that permeates along the stage lights into the darkness of the theatre, creating a transporting magic.

Of course, this is what makes dance the most wonderful of the performing arts.  Watching a ballet competition, for example, of eight couples dancing the third act of Sleeping Beauty, you’ll witness eight individual energies, all creating something different while the music and choreography remains the same, the technique similar.  Some wonderful, unidentifiable spark differentiates the performers.  Is it experience?  Is it soul? Is it some kind of knowingness?  As a dancer grows and matures, they seem to naturally deepen their understanding of character, as Gomes realizes in this Swan Lake.

At Siegfried’s birthday party, the corps dance around the spinning maypole, weaving and unweaving the ribbons; wearing festive violets, muted lavenders, and royal blue outer skirts, with tiaras for the women; men, in handsome waistcoats that mimic the same colors.  On marbled floors, in the outside garden overlooking the lake, drinks are served in golden cups. The Queen Mother, played by former ABT’s outstanding principal dancer, Susan Jaffee, presents Siegfried with a crossbow, and all celebrate.  The very lyrical pas de trois, at the end of the party, the fading sun, and the exotic reverie dance, bring the ensemble together for a soft close; then, an unexpected, rousing and proud Czards, to dignify the proceeding, and pulse the heart, like a final kiss of departure. His young heart full, Siegfried wanders into the forests to soothe his yearning soul, alone.

What makes Swan Lake such a captivating work of Art?  One could start with the mythical proportions of the story:  the metaphor of the eternal quest for authenticity and wholeness; spiritual ascendency through heroic and unconditional love; the moral struggle and triumphant battle over the smoke and oppression of evil–all elemental forces.  Call it Swan Lake, Swanansee, Le Lac de Cygnes, what you will, staged and re-staged for the last 150 years, since Petipa and Lev Ivanov choreographed, and Tchaikovsky’s mesmerizing score; the elements of story, mood, magic, poetry, and  dazzling symphonic ideas, never ceases to enlighten, transport, and make this work a holy event.

The audience applauds in profound appreciation, realizing what it has witnessed is not ordinary–the uplifting love expressed in the final act; Odette’s signature, joyous celebration of freedom, completing her triumphant thirty-two perfect fouettes; to the lovers final leap of faith– all epitomizes this dazzling work of Art: a strong coherence of music, choreography, and libretto; the unity of flutes, oboes, violins, and horns, the blending of stylized, ideal human movement, and finally, the depth, variety, and passion of a genius score. Clearly, Swan Lake has no equal in Ballet.

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