casts her wicked spell: Tchaikovsky Ballet’s Swan Lake.
Mae G. Banner
Ballet and Orchestra’s Swan Lake
Theatre, March 19
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
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
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