BWW Review: Milwaukee Ballet's SWAN LAKE is Streamlined & Sublime
Tchaikovsky's glorious score, the innocent white swan, the evil BLACK SWAN, the prince, the curse, the ill-fated lovers. Even casual fans of ballet know Swan Lake, as it's arguably the most prevailing piece next to, perhaps, The Nutcracker. Typically performed in four acts, Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director, Michael Pink, has trimmed the classic into two acts, maintaining Swan Lake's integrity and grandeur while making it a more comfortable experience for modern audiences.
In Pink's version, we see the villainous Count von Rothbart (Timothy O'Donnell*) cast his swan spell on Odette (Luz San Miguel*) and her friends as they play along the lakeshore. His aim: To destroy Prince Siegfried's (Davit Hovhannisyan*) true love, thereby destroying the prince himself and usurping the throne. Von Rothbart also conjures a dark foil for Odette - Odile (Marize Fumero*), the BLACK SWAN, to further lure Siegfried to his doom.
Setting the scenes are Lighting Designer David Grill and Set & Costume Designer José Varona. Lighting moves from golden sunshine to rosy sunset, and from the purple hues of twilight to moonlight dancing on enchanted waters. The shifts are subtle, yet so very critical to a story where women are cursed to be birds by day and human by night. Sets fit for a fairytale round out the scenery, transporting the audience to a land of ancient forests and opulent royal courts.
Varona's costumes mirror the richness and storybook charm of the of Swan Lake's lighting and sets. Eye-popping fabrics are jewel-toned and saturated, lending a sense of the regal and fantastical. Then there are the swan maidens, who are, traditionally, sheathed in white tutus with their queen, Odette, in a similar tutu that's a few notches up on the luxury scale, complete with feathered headdress.
You'll find none of that tradition in this Milwaukee Ballet version, as its creators have fully embraced modernity in outfitting their swans. The troupe of swans dance in simple white dress, more suited to a contemporary dance than a classical ballet. Given that the nemesis Odile dons a very traditional black tutu, the sleekness of our heroine and her friends is, at first, a little surprising - especially for anyone eagerly anticipating those classic costumes.
But as soon as the women of the Milwaukee Ballet start moving, all costuming concerns vanish. In skirts that skim their dancers bodies, hair pulled half-back, the female company of sixteen move with such utter grace and precision, it's indeed a wise choice to let their skill shine through more simple attire. Though the principal dancers often stop the show with rounds of applause, the beauty of Swan Lake is how it allows the female company an opportunity to amaze.
These ladies are mesmerizing, and seeing all sixteen on stage - seventeen including Odette - moving in unison is a marvel of choreography and artistry. Many of the favorite Swan Lake moments can be found: the swan maidens huddled together, the pitter-patter of bourrées, backs arched as a flock of anxious birds. What's missing? The famous Dance of the Little Swans. My one regret.
But whatever traditions are eschewed, they are answered with innovations that strengthen the narrative. In the Pas de Deux, wherein Siegfried meets the swan maiden Odette and tries to win her trust, the dance can sometimes seem all too comfortable right from the start. Traditionally, the white swan and the prince begin this dance closely intertwined and moving together as a pair. In Pink's version, Odette's fear is palpable and her eventual trust in Siegfried feels earned.
It's this passionate and tender relationship that makes Swan Lake a fairytale romance for the ages. Perhaps that's why it never goes out of style, and why the principal roles of Odette, Odile, and Siegfried are an honor for any classical ballet dancer. The Milwaukee Ballet principals do their parts ample justice, with Thursday night's Odette and Odile, Luz San Miguel and Marize Fumero, tipping the scales to give us something transcendent.
The final moments of the ballet pull your heart into your throat, as the sixteen swan maidens turn their backs to the audience and gaze upon their beloved fallen queen. The movements are simple, the effect breathtaking. That about sums up Michael Pink's Swan Lake on the whole - streamlined and sublime.
*Indicates dancers for Thursday's performance
Photos of Luz San Miguel, Marize Fumero, and Davit Hovhannisyan by Mark Frohna