Friday, May 2, 2008

Swan Lake revisited - and revised

The swan maidens flock together in Act II. (Photo by Gene Schiavone.)

Only a few weeks ago, Boston Ballet announced it would be leaving Citi Center for good after next season - and last night, at the opening of Swan Lake, Citi Center struck back. The hijinx began with an opening announcement about cast changes that was so soft you couldn't hear it; but surely that was just an honest mistake. Then when the houselights went up during a "pause" between acts - inducing some patrons to head for the bar, then dash back as darkness fell - it seemed that, too, was perhaps just an oversight. But when the huge drop at the back of the set began to rise during Act III, revealing a scaffold and a nonplussed stagehand, you began to sense that something like malice aforethought might be afoot. (Could Josiah Spaulding be backstage, yanking at some hidden pulley like the Phantom?) Thank God there's no real chandelier at Citi Center - still, Act IV likewise saw more half-glimpsed antics in the wings, and then at the final bow, most of the cast had mysteriously gone missing. (No doubt they'd fled in panic.)

Not that this ruffled the Ballet's highly determined prima ballerinas and danseurs, or its cleanly aligned, beautifully synchronous corps (above). Indeed, the triumph of this Swan Lake was its bevy of leggy swan-maidens; long-forgotten was the blurry architecture of the avian choreography in the Ballet's last Lake. This time around, the corps rivaled the crystalline precision of the Kirov (which flew through town a year or two ago), and so nailed the piece's patented wonder - the ethereal beauty of all that synchronized feminine allure.

Alas, elsewhere the dancing was always vital, but sometimes a bit rough - and although Larissa Ponomarenko melted hearts (as always) as the somewhat blandly virtuous Odette, she didn't really disturb as evil twin Odile. I caught Lorna Feijóo in the Ballet's 2004 version, who brought a memorable inner perversity to the role, along with a lock on its technical challenges, and I couldn't help but feel a certain gap: Ponomarenko made a simple, but still affecting, Odette, but an almost childishly superficial Odile - all wicked glee rather than coiled malice. Still, she danced the role with spirit (even if she wobbled out of her famously fiendish 32 fouettes), and Roman Rykine, as the Prince taken in by her machinations, displayed the same sympathetic partnering he seems almost to fall into with Ponomarenko, and elsewhere essayed an appropriately aristocratic melancholy.

I wasn't as taken with all the other featured roles - as the dastardly Von Rothbart (who's enchanted the swan maidens), Pavel Gurevitch was more pesky forest sprite than threatening evil wizard, and the divertissements which open the first and third acts dragged slightly (at least on opening night). Still, Melissa Hough displayed a gorgeously supple technique in the first act's pas de trois (her delicate lands in particular where to die for), and James Whiteside shone with his usual glossy sexual energy. In the third act, the stand-outs were Joel Prouty and Misa Kuranaga, who brought a winking camaraderie to the sweet, silly Neapolitan Dance.

Alas, that very lightness dogged the rest of the ballet. Artistic Director Nissinen this time around has opted for an improbably happy ending, which seems to flout the traditional raison d'etre of the production - although I'm not sure, in the end, why we have to venerate the "original" moves (actually reconstructed from several early versions), which include some awkward lifts for Odette and some rather rote variations. Still, once you've taken that route, why revise the ending in a manner which simply doesn't scan that well to the doomy climax of Tchaikovsky's themes? With a bit of Disneyfied triumph at the finale, yes, Swan Lake is more a crowd-pleaser than ever, but it can be so much more: its admittedly daffy dream logic, with all those mysterious curses and lakes made of tears, can unlock a surprisingly deep emotional resonance and be quite moving even though it doesn't make much sense. Boston Ballet's new version, however, seems happy to be lovely eye-candy, but not much more.

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