BWW Reviews: NEW YORK CITY BALLET'S "Swan Lake" Gets Dance 10, Costumes and Scenery 0

New York City Ballet's "Swan Lake", which opened the 2015 fall season with performances from September 22nd to 29th, is a testament to the old adage that goes "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." In creating this iteration of one of the most beloved staples in ballet's classical canon, Artistic Director Peter Martins and his colleagues tinkered mercilessly with everything from the choreography to the costumes and sets. The dancing on the evening of Friday, September 25th when I saw the production was gorgeous and the story line was suitably moving, but those positive aspects didn't make up for the other glaring flaws. Not only that, but the orchestra was definitely not in fine fettle. Tchaikovsky's glorious score deserves better.

The Martins' version dates from 1996 when it premiered with the Royal Danish Ballet at the Royal Theatre, Copenhagen. The NYCB premiere was on April 29th 1999 at what was then the New York State Theater and is now the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. Program notes tell us that Martins invited Denmark's leading artist, Per Kirkeby, to design the scenery and décor. A 1999 review by Timothy Cahill in the UK's The Times Union entitled "Swan Lake Scraps Tradition" avers that Kirkeby "replaced opulence with a mood of impending disaster". Actually, he replaced period costumes and sets that defined where the action takes place with impossibly ugly orange and green costumes against some sort of thorny backdrop for the first act at the castle. Moving right along, the costumes for the national dances during the Prince's birthday celebration in the second act are uniformly drab and unwieldy. The lithe members of NYCB look positively chunky in short waisted tutus and overly heavy garb.

But enough of my carping about the visual arts aspects of the production. I was fortunate enough to see Sterling Hyltin do a commendable job of the demanding dual role of Odette/Odile. She needs a bit more work on her dramatic characterizations of the characters, but she was close enough and her technique was superb. She was ably partnered by Andrew Veyette, replacing Zachary Catazaro. The substitution was announced before the curtain rose, along with a mumbled list of substitutions for the six princesses and several other roles. Whatever happened to the slip of paper tucked into playbills alerting the audience of changes? I'd like to commend the princesses who actually danced, but I couldn't catch their names. Suffice it to say that the ladies were lovely, although Martins' choreography had so much business going on with the five ballerinas behind each princess who was dancing solo that seeing what she was doing was difficult.

Speaking of Martins' choreography, why did he dare to tamper with Cygnets? Having the four little swans do the emboité sequence revolving in a circle was most definitely not an improvement. As I said at the beginning of this review, leaving well enough alone would have been far preferable. In the same vein, when is a tarantella not a tarantella? When Martins renders it as a pointe shoe variation in still more orange and green costumes.

On a positive note, the children in the production were terrific. A tip of the hat to Dena Abergel, Children's Ballet Master, and Arch Higgins, Assistant Children's Ballet Master, for consistently rehearsing the youngsters for NYCB productions so that they do everyone proud.

Finally, I like Martins' use of black swans in the corps de ballet during the final lakeside scene. The moment when they surround Rothbart as he collapses and somehow dissolves so that only his cape remains is wonderfully chilling. Also, the corps de ballet in general was far better rehearsed than is often true at City Ballet.

In sum, go see NYCB's "Swan Lake" if you ever get the opportunity. Even the drab costumes and oddly sinister sets can't dampen the pleasure you'll have in witnessing some of the best dancing on the planet.

Photo by Paul Kolnik

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From This Author Sondra Forsyth

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