BWW Review: American Ballet Theatre's Exquisite SWAN LAKE

BWW Review: American Ballet Theatre's Exquisite SWAN LAKE

A good fairy tale can be a dangerous thing; sure, you can entertain children with tales of sorcerers' curses, princes and princesses, but as all storytellers know it's not the kid stuff that matters. It's the adult themes lurking beneath the surface-good vs. evil, fidelity, power, greed and especially lust-that give these tales their edge.

The story of Swan Lake has it all: for the kids you've got a grand palace with a handsome prince, and an enchanted lake with a beautiful princess cursed by an evil sorcerer. The parents, meanwhile, look beyond the exotic locale to its glimpse of pure evil, with youthful innocence and true love betrayed, not to mention enough sexual tension to bust every string in the fiddle section.

Swan Lake centers on the good princess Odette; cursed by the evil Rothbart to appear as a swan by day, she must find true love in order to become fully human again; and along comes eligible bachelor Prince Siegfried, who looks like the answer to her prayers. But later at a royal ball Rothbart unleashes his daughter Odile on Siegfried, who seduces him and forces him to marry her instead. Once Siegfried realizes his mistake he rushes to the lake and confesses to Odette; she drowns herself in the enchanted lake, followed soon after by a distraught Siegfried.

The roots of the Swan Lake which was staged this week at the Kennedy Center Opera House by the American Ballet Theatre are a complicated affair, as complex as the origins of the story itself. The second act-Prince Siegfried's first lakeside encounter with the enchanted swan/princess Odette-was originally choreographed by Russian master Lev Ivanov as part of a memorial to Tchaikovsky. It was only later that he and the great Marius Petipa collaborated on a complete staging at the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg, with Ivanov responsible for scenes at the enchanted lake (acts 2 & 4) and Petipa staging the dances at Prince Siegfried's palace (acts 1 & 3).

What makes the ballet particularly interesting from a psychological point of view is the fact that the ballet calls for the same artist to dance both Odette and Odile. For the kids, you get to see a great ballerina in two different parts; for the adults, there's the doppelganger effect, the contemplation of how complex our personalities really are.

Ivanov and Petipa's work has been the foundation for adaptations ever since, but as with all classics in order to bring it to the stage you must breathe new life into it, and create a narrative that balances fidelity to the original with the genius of the modern choreographer. Not to mention the unique talents and personalities of each dancer. Kevin McKenzie, ABT's Artistic Director, brings this 19th-century classic into the 21st century with great sensitivity, but also with a sense of fun and celebration.

For Wednesday night's performance we were treated to Hee Seo as Odette-Odile. As Odette, the delicacy of Seo's interpretation, particularly in her stately, moving pas-de-deux with Siegfried can be seen in something as simple as a discreet, swan-like shake of her head. When she returns as the seductress Odile and you are treated to another pas-de-deux, what struck me was the way that the same gesture, with subtle adjustments, can speak to Odette's innocence one moment but then reflect Odile's evil intentions the next. Cory Stearns' Siegfried has all the elan of youth, and the expression of the prince's sincerity is so persuasive he manages to make your typical heroic lunkhead remarkably vulnerable and human.

Perhaps the most thrilling of McKenzie's innovations is his treatment of the sorcerer Rothbart, beginning with the creation of a brief "prequel" in the overture, during which we see him seduce and curse Odette, turning her into a swan. The role is double-cast, which enables us to see Rothbart's true evil (and hideously green) self contrasted with the tall, incredibly handsome and vigorous Prince persona he adopts when he wishes to seduce. When in his princely form, Rothbart is an absolute lady-killer, whose vigor takes hold of the entire stage and easily outstraps Siegfried (who himself is no slouch, but let's just say he lacks the animal element). From the moment he casually tosses his cape and dares to sit next to the Queen Mother, you know this Rothbart is a character you will love to hate. Patrick Ogle and Thomas Forster made a perfect team on Wednesday.

Fairy tales need exotic settings, and Zach Brown's sets and costumes, set off by Duane Schuler's sensitive lighting scheme, can sometimes take your breath away. Vine-covered arches provide the perfect frame for the action, and although I found the "rays" of the rising sun in the final tableau a bit much, the detail work in both the lake and court scenes is a true feast for the eyes deserving of its own ovation. Conductor Charles Barker led a fine musical ensemble in the pit, and apart from the initial statement of the Swan Lake theme (the oboe was a bit strident to my taste, call me picky), they nicely accompanied the sensitive portions of the story line.

With ABT's company, you will be treated to a different combination of dancers in the lead roles each time. And if Wednesday's performance was any indication, each show this week will have its own nuances as the roles are passed from dancer to dancer.

Production Photo: Isabella Roylston as Odette (the White Swan). Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Performance Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission.

Swan Lake will be performed January 25-29 at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C.

Tickets (if any are left) can be purchased at the Kennedy Center box office or by calling Instant Charge at (202) 467-4600, or you can visit:

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From This Author Andrew White

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