BWW Dance Review: American Ballet Theatre's SWAN LAKE
A work of symphonic poetry, "Swan Lake" is one of the masterworks of the Romantic era. In both plot and musical composition it is a perfect Romantic marriage of the sublimely fanciful and intimately simple. "Swan Lake" follows the tale of Prince Siegfried who falls in love with the Swan Queen, Odette, but is duped into swearing fidelity to her evil counterpart, Odile. Odette, in her anguish, commits suicide by diving into the titular lake after which Siegfried joins her. They are then brought to paradise, breaking the sorcerer Rothbart's spell. While recognized by most audiences familiar with the balletic canon, this plot is nevertheless too outlandish a tale to be sold through a solid social reality. Because of this, most performances attempt either an expressionist, or macabre and regal fairy tale aesthetic. In both cases the visual structure surrenders to the understanding that this work requires some dose of poetic abstraction if it is to be palatable for our disillusioned contemporary culture. American Ballet Theatre's "Swan Lake" elects a different route, offering no respite into abstract fantasy on its own aesthetic structure.
The realm of Prince Siegfried, as designed by Zack Brown, is extremely habitable. The kingdom is so habitable in its rendering that one can easily imagine crisp fall air, the smell and gentle pulse of the lake, and the consistent variations between warm sun and chilled shade as the dancers move about in the setting. Such impressions can be a strong preamble for Romantic sensuality and, when the performance exists on the lake, they are. In the woods, at the lake's edge, the moonlit sky and tapestry like trees that cross the proscenium create a world of elegant fantasy. However, once in and around the sturdily rendered palace, it becomes increasingly impossible to escape to the heightened vision of reality that such a plot demands, and which Tchaikovsky's score serves best.
With the plot resting on all too solid ground, all forays into the realm of cathartic beauty must be delivered by the performances of the ballet dancers. Thankfully, in the capable hands of Maria Kochetkova, such moments are exuberant and plentiful. The movement of Ms. Kochetkova as both Odette and Odile is calligraphic in its certainty. In her interactions with Herman Cornejo's Prince she doesn't disappear into a movement that flitters towards a mercurial sheen, but holds tangible shape. In their pas de deux every interaction comes with the tension of imagined swan wings. Kochetkova's movement doesn't just present swan grace as an archetype of beauty but as something that can create a mechanical tension and structural certainty. However, in contrast to the restrained specter of Odette, her Odile is a creature of incarnated enthusiasm. While upon her entrance it is clear she is the life of the party, she seems rather disinterested in focusing her energies and concocting chemistry with The Prince. As such Mr. Cornejo's Prince spends the performance enchanted rather than enchanting. While his movement comes with an undeniable charismatic certainty, he executes it with the explanation of his fascination with the Swan Queen, rather than the rhapsody of romantic entanglement. To him she is a mirage to be examined and admired. As Ms. Kochetkova's performance is extremely resonant as a living creature, such distance from her actuality brings his experience to low relief and he serves to be more of an extension of her form, rather than a unique dramatic figure.
With so much dramatic emphasis centered upon the relationship between Odette and the Prince, all other stage action could be little more than clutter. Thankfully, act one's pas de trois danced by Cassandra Trenary, Catherine Hurlin and Zhiyao Zhang stands among the evening's most enduring balletic experiences. The chemistry among these three townspeople exhibits a mature self-confident camaraderie. Their movement came from a fullbodied social interaction that fleshes out the breadth of social order and dignity of the kingdom. In addition to the first act pas de trois, ABT's "Swan Lake" exploits the full power of its corps to an uncanny effect. They are hypnotic in their deft precision and offer a surreal expansiveness the ballet desperately requires.
There is an understandable virtue in the compulsion to not encumber the balletic form with concept. Masterworks such as "Swan Lake" have survived long enough seemingly without the corrupting influence of directorial vision, that it would appear such a structural backbone would inhibit the transcendent nature of such a piece. However, the fantasies of late nineteenth century are not the fantasies of today. This plot, unabated by a contemporary mindset, offers no blueprint by which the artists can assemble a sustainable transcendent structure. With masters such as Maria Kochetkova, Herman Cornejo, and indeed one of the most astonishing balletic ensembles in the world, interest can be sustained via movement alone. However, if the audience is to inhabit a realm where Tchaikovsky's music can fully inhabit the body, the mechanism needs to be repaired through new artistic technologies.