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Odile casts her wicked spell: Tchaikovsky Ballet’s Swan Lake.

Russian Enchantment
By Mae G. Banner

Tchaikovsky Ballet and Orchestra’s Swan Lake

Palace Theatre, March 19

Ask an ordinary American to name a famous ballet and the answer probably will be Swan Lake. This tale of enchanted swan princesses, love and betrayal is one of Tchaikovsky’s peak musical achievements and one of the enduring treasures of dance.

With choreography by Petipa (the lakeside scenes) and Ivanov (the ballroom spectacles), Swan Lake premiered in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The swans have been swirling ever since.

Sunday afternoon at the Palace, we got the real deal. The Tchaikovsky Ballet and Orchestra (62 dancers and a 51-piece orchestra) performed a full-scale Swan Lake that took its time in the telling and the tempos, and brought us close to the tragic side of the Russian temperament.

The Tchaikovsky company, based in Perm near the Ural Mountains, has existed under different names since the 1920s, dancing classical narrative ballets and Socialist Realist works. This production of Swan Lake was made for them last year by Natalia Makarova, who also directed it.

Makarova knows her swans, having often danced the double role of Odette and Odile. She has preserved the signal moves of the enchanted white swan who enraptures Prince Sigfrid and of her wicked counterpart who seduces him. At the Palace, Natalia Moiseeva was brilliant in the demanding part, melting with love for the prince; then, as Odile, triumphing over him—and doing so with the identical swan neck and extreme backbends. Context is everything.

Sergei Mershin was the prince, who evolved from a restive, unfocused boy unready to marry to a romantic protector of Odette who pledges to free her from the sorcerer’s spell, then to a foolish victim of the scheme by the sorcerer and his daughter Odile in her flashing black tutu, and finally to a doomed, chastened lover who dies with Odette at the lakeside.

Like the production itself, Mershin took his time to get into the action—the first act can be notoriously slow as it sets up the story—but, from the moment he encountered Odette, he was a strong partner, lifting her eight times in amazing splits that rent the air.

In the ballroom scene, where the prince is introduced to an array of possible consorts and the company is entertained by a series of colorful national dances, Sigfrid took a turn with each white-gowned princess, dancing symmetries within symmetries. When the mysterious guests, the sorcerer and his daughter Odile, enter, the prince is dazzled by her come-hither looks and wicked backbends. Excited, he performs stunning turns, leg-beats to the side, big jetés, and soaring jumps.

Odile nails Sigfrid with her countless fouettes (the famous whipping steps), then bends her back in a final arch of triumph. The gulled prince pledges his love to Odile, breaking his vow to Odette and sealing both their deaths. His collapse when he realized his mistake, and the ensuing confusion of the entire court made a thrilling climax to the ballroom scene.

In the final scene, Sigfrid rushes to the lake to find Odette. He sinks to the ground, distraught, but she kisses him and lifts him to his feet for their final duet. Thunder and lightning announce the sorcerer, who menaces the lovers, covers them with his owl-winged cloak, and so makes them disappear. But, the sorcerer, too, collapses, and, in an apotheosis of conquering love, the prince and Odette appear under a dim spotlight, embracing in immortality.

Makarova’s choreography gave full weight to the story, but there was much more in this production. She used the corps of 24 enchanted swans in new and thrilling patterns, often asymmetric, and always stage- filling. Sometimes, the group swirled around itself like cream stirred into coffee. Sometimes, they entered in a giant oval that curved inward like a chambered nautilus. Sometimes, one covey of swans stood upstage right, while another knelt downstage left. All this was exceptionally enchanting when seen from the balcony.

Of course the ballet of the four baby swans was danced in the purest tradition, those small heads and printing toes working in tandem as they have for more than a hundred years. It was followed by a passage of three swans, set in a stage-covering triangle and filled with exquisite patterns and changes of direction. This formation of three against four was repeated in later swan scenes.

The national dances in the ballroom scene provided a break from the tension of the story. My favorites in this production were the Spanish, with fans and castanets, and the Hungarian czardas in gold-lined skirts and cloaks and with plenty of twirling, hand-claps and high stepping.

The scenery was minimal and the lighting was kept shadowy throughout, but the costumes were beautiful and well-thought out, and the dancing, once the tour-weary corps got their second wind, was superlative.

The orchestra, conducted by Valeriy Platonov, added great depth to the production and gave Tchaikovsky’s sublime music its due.

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