Swans Upon a Time

A turbulence with spiky formations and spunky divertissements

More turbulent than placid, Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake” returned to the New York State Theater on Friday, January 6, spiced with spiky formations and spunky divertissements. In the tragic story, Tom Gold as the Jester delivers the fun, delighting audience members as well as the noble characters on stage with his cheeky tours.

Martins’ Swan Lake is not the dreamy tale choreographed in 1895 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, but two fast-moving acts in one hour and 40 minutes including an ample intermission. In the mythical story, an evil sorcerer Von Rotbart enchanted girls, turning them into swans—who mate for life—but at night their human form emerges. One night Siegfried is at the lakeside hunting; he takes aim at a swan but is smitten by the beautiful princess he sees in her.

Damian Woetzel is the hapless Prince Siegfried. Wendy Whelan is the girl trapped in the body of a swan Odette, and her evil incarnation Odile. Not many in the company could bring as much swan-like punch to the role as Whelan, the bite that accompanies her uncommon grace rings true if you have ever tried to approach a swan. Her skittish swan/girl satisfies with emotional depth as the tragedy develops. With tremulous beating of her arms, she moves as if through water to an arpeggio in the Tschaikovsky score. The music is brightly conducted by British guest Colin Metters.

A long ago Swan Queen, Pierina Legnani could do 32 fouettés and set a standard for the role, not followed by all.

Whelan does two-thirds, winding down with a series of pirouettes; the climax moves elsewhere where it is wed to the drama. Whelan’s intelligent interpretation conveys the wintry feel and the less romantic realities of today, as does Danish abstract painter Per Kirkeby’s massive and geologic-looking scenery—lines seemingly brushed with a wandering hand. City Ballet and the Balanchine tradition doesn’t focus on stunt mastery, but on choreography. Thus we are lucky to see the risks taken in this version, first commissioned by the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996.

Despite the modern set and Kirkeby’s costumes in vibrant colors and patterns, the steps are classical. As Balanchine would have liked, everything’s essential. The hands are down, articulating the swan theme. The corps of sister swans with their arms raised and their hands lowered from the wrist tipped to the right or left are as dramatically striking as any. From close perspective, they appeared to rush into formations spiked with asymmetry.

Woetzel’s Siegfried is innocent and modest. He’s clearly taken with the princess and her imposter. He leaps with great ballon, but his princely character lacks gumption and gallantry, the chivalry of old. I missed the frontality of the classical ballet. Odile and Von Rotbart conspire to trick him into infidelity. Whelan’s Odette/Odile is neither super-sweet nor extra-sharp; she deconstructs that comforting belief in black and white. Swans in the signature black tutu of Odile crop up in the corps. In Martin’s forgiving ending, the lonely Siegfried, lives. The principal cast is completed by Stephen Hanna as the prince’s friend Benno and Dena Abergel is a regal Queen. Von Rotbart is the devilishly handsome guest artist Robert LaFosse.

In ornate divertissements that contrast Martin’s and Whelan’s pared down aesthetic, up-and-coming Adam Hendrickson charms us in the Neapolitan Dance. In the over-the-top Russian Dance Yvonne Borree and Albert Evans move with refreshing theatricality and generosity in exotic bejeweled costumes, though when Evans lumbers upstage with his back to us, we lose him.

Drifting in and out of the girl/swan modes, Whelan shifts back and forth in time, at once ephemeral and corporeal. W. B. Yeats, who asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” found a metaphor in swans––“their hearts have not grown old.” They light year after year in one lake or another, and thus have been hopeful symbols of the New Year.

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