Monday, November 10, 2014

Boston Ballet's new Swan Lake

Lakeside with the swan maidens. Photos: Rosalie O'Connor

Expectations were high on opening night of Boston Ballet's new version of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen had promised a re-imagining that would somehow clarify the mysteries of this iconic dance, which is hauntingly resonant and yet strangely vague in its detail. And he had hired designer Robert Perdziola (whose reboot of the Ballet's Nutcracker had proved a triumph) to help him pull it off.  So the thought on everyone's mind as the curtain rose was something like, "Can they do it again?"

Well, the short answer is - "Yes, they can."

Although the longer answer might be: "But not quite the way they think."

For this Swan Lake is indeed a magnificent achievement - Nissinen's choreography is exquisite, Perdziola's designs are ravishing, and the dancing is of course second-to-none (as we expect of the Ballet by now).  The curtain calls went on forever on opening night, and the house shouted itself hoarse.

But are the depths of this particular Swan Lake really any clearer than the rest?  I'd have to answer no, even though Nissinen has added vignettes, and restored some lost sequences of steps - he's quite the dedicated dance archaeologist, in fact, and you can feel rippling through his Lake the legacy of the great choreographers who made the ballet what it is (Petipa and Ivanov of course chief among them, although there are echoes of Ashton in the men's legwork).

That very proclivity, however, may actually work against clarity in this case, as the history of this ballet is one of constant revision - from the very start - and its central trope (Odette's curse) is simply too complex to be explained in mime. You could argue, in fact, that in any historically informed version, Swan Lake will feel oblique; yet you'd hardly care, because it's so mesmerizingly beautiful.

And we don't really want to boil Swan Lake down to anything, anyhow; it's ok if we're a little confused by that wicked-looking dude (the evil Rothbart) who hangs out lakeside, or can't understand who this evil chick is who looks just like Odette and wants to steal her boyfriend. Because in the end, Swan Lake proceeds by the logic of the dream - and the audience doesn't want to be waked.

Of course many a choreographer has nevertheless tried to plug the ballet's seeming plot gaps with explicit Jungian or Freudian tropes - thankfully, Nissinen doesn't go there (best to let these float just beyond the scrim of fairy tale convention).  But his focus on the ballet's history, and the concrete steps themselves, also led to a few dramatic lacunae; there seemed to be no focus in Prince Siegfried's relationship with either his tutor or mother, for instance, because neither supporting figure really gets to dance.

A rapport with a  tender, trusting core: Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga.
But elsewhere there were inspired surprises. The movements of the enchanted corps, for instance, were at first more angular and avian than usual - clearly Nissinen wanted to remind us that these maidens were actual swans; and he subtly hinted that Odette's translation into human form was dependent on her tender touches with the Prince (above). In something like the same vein, he opened the final act with an unforgettable tableau - of the swans' graceful necks rising and falling from the mists of their lagoon. And Nissinen triumphed in his choreography for Odile, the wicked daughter of Rothbart who tricks the Prince into betraying his beloved (and thus dashing her hopes of returning to human form) partly by explicitly styling her as a bird of prey.

This proved Kuranaga's finest hour - her Odette was lovely, but her Odile was riveting.  Every step was a pinpoint thrust, every turn was cut by a glittering scalpel; and the ballerina threw off her famous 32 fouettés en tournant like so much candy tossed to the eager crowd. Kuranaga has always been a technical perfectionist; but this time she burned with a special fire born of her own expertise. It may have been the greatest performance I've ever seen her give.

Cirio was likewise in superb form (and easily shook off a spill that came as he leapt through some over-moist mist in the second act).  His leaps and landings were as nimble as ever, and his partnering Kuranaga was sweetly tuned indeed; by now these two stars share a gallant rapport that hints at a tender core - which is just right for Siegfried and Odette.

Elsewhere in the cast the news was equally good. A heavily made-up Lasha Khozashvili conjured a truly diabolical Rothbart - he seemed to streak across the stage during his jetés like a black bolt of lightning. (Khozashvili even pulled off a tricky little sketch, played against the overture, in which Rothbart first casts his malevolent spell over the panicking Odette.)  The work from the corps of swans was, in contrast, gently transparent and controlled, while the pas de chat of the five little cygnets - Ji Young Chae, Shelby Elsbree, Rie Ichikawa, and Seo Hye Han - was delicate perfection.

One of Robert Perdziola's sketches for the production.
Back at court, Dusty  Button and Whitney Jensen were luminous as ever in the opening pas de trois, partnered by a newly confident and supple Roddy Doble; later standouts included a spirited pas de cinq from Ji Young Chae, Lia Cirio, Rie Ichikawa, Paul Craig and Patrick Yocum, and a buoyant Neapolitan dance from Dalay Parrondo and Isaac Akiba.  Here Perdziola's costumes were at their most dazzling, and were often studded with telling details (in one ironic touch, for instance, the princesses summoned to woo Prince Siegfried all sported feathers, too); and they sparkled against his most striking backdrop, a vertiginous view of the palace stairs and ceiling that Escher might have admired.  I think I preferred, however, his final gambit, a poetically spare sketch of the fateful, titular lake, a tiny moon above it, cast like a dime on the dark counter of the night, with a single moonbeam slipping from it like a silver spear.

Of course when it comes to a new version, the first question from a Swan Lake veteran is usually "How does it end?" For while tradition demands the ballet close with tragedy, its central conflict has sometimes been spun toward triumph. Nissinen seems to want things both ways, which doesn't quite satisfy - although part of the problem is that the lovers' final pact leads to something of a vanishing act, rather than a death-defying plunge or some similar stage coup. Oh, well - it was only one small misstep after dozens of dazzling ones!

And luckily there were even fewer errant notes down in the pit, where Jonathan McPhee conducted with a surging sort of sympathy, and the famously lush harp part was spun expertly by Kathleen Lyon-Pingree, as Barbara LaFitte's oboe glided just as yearningly as it should in Tchaikovsky's famous swan theme.  Like everyone involved in this production, they seemed to know they were polishing yet another jewel in the Ballet's growing crown of achievement.

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