City Ballet’s New Swan Lake : Heartless but Not Hopeless

What War and Peace is to the novel and Hamlet is to the theater, Swan Lake is to ballet-that is, the name which to many people stands for and sums up an art form. Tchaikovsky’s music, the mystery and high romance of the story, and the opportunity for a ballerina to strut her stuff in a double role-the tragic Odette, cruelly transformed into a swan by the evil magician, Von Rotbart, and the wicked Odile, who impersonates her in order to snare the Prince and doom the lovers-guarantee its box-office success. Which is why, in 1951, George Balanchine-practical as ever-created New York City Ballet’s one-act version as a star vehicle for Maria Tallchief. Now, almost half a century later, Peter Martins has decided to stage a full-length, four-act version (mercifully, with only one intermission). What he has given us is a Swan Lake at full throttle.

The ballet was a muddle from the start-early versions failed, and it wasn’t until Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov rethought it in 1895 that it more or less achieved its present shape. As a result, its score and its story have been especially vulnerable to rethinking, tinkering, or trashing-take your pick. Sleeping Beauty always gets her prince, Giselle always goes back to her Wilis, but the ending of Swan Lake is up for grabs. It’s also a ballet open to overinterpretation, but in this case it’s been so pared down emotionally and psychologically that a lot of it, particularly the first act, comes across like a classroom piece- Konservatoriet , say, from Mr. Martins’ alma mater, the Royal Danish Ballet. Yes, the Queen turns up to order her son, Prince Siegfried, to find himself a bride and then, immediately, presents him with a crossbow (is he supposed to go out and shoot himself one?). But there is no other plot point and no emotional resonance. Instead, we get the Jester, who’s been given a lot of difficult virtuoso steps (carried off brilliantly by Tom Gold in the second of the three performances I saw), and a great deal of prancing about and waving and smirking-nothing can stop this Jester from jesting, including the other dancers; he’s a constant distraction. So, too, are a gaggle of little children presumably dragged on to elicit oohs and ahs from the audience. (Do these children belong to the “villagers” of the program notes? There’s nothing villagey about anything on stage. And since the Prince shows no interest whatsoever in any female who isn’t avian, they’re certainly not his .)

The entire act, including the very effective pas de trois, is compromised by the extraordinary hideousness of the set and the costumes. The pale-vomit backdrop is ghastly enough, but as a setting for the costumes it’s even worse-they’re rancid green for the girls, rancid orange for the boys, with a splash of royal blue (Siegfried) and scarlet (Benno). When they’re all whirling around center stage, they look like a bunch of drunken M&M’s. (The other sets are just as terrible. The lake scenes are squiggly-ugly, in a style that, for all I know, may pass as acceptable abstract art in Denmark; the great ballroom of Act 3 looks like the waiting room of the Poughkeepsie railroad station. I can’t remember a production whose sets were so destructive to the dance.)

In the first of the “white” acts, newly staged material for the corps is attractive and in style-and as always when the 24 swans make their first rushing entrance onto the stage, one’s heart stops. Von Rotbart has nothing to do but swish around in a great orange cape, orange stockings, and orange gardening mitts until, in the most self-destructive moment of the production, he is intruded into Odette’s heartbreaking exit, as-drawn by his magnetic power-she transforms herself back into a swan and is compelled away from the Prince and off the stage. This is one of the most moving moments in all ballet, but not when a day-glo Lon Chaney is capering around behind Odette as she bourrées off. (By the third performance this mistake had been corrected.)

The “black” act is both severely underpopulated and over-costumed. Given the importance of the occasion-six foreign princesses summoned to the court so that the Prince can choose a wife-there aren’t many courtiers around. The princesses are sweetly pretty, but the Prince isn’t even politely interested; he doesn’t bother to dance with them, they just audition for him and are gone. Of course, the main focus is Odile-how she is both distinguished from, and resembles, Odette. We get the famous “Black Swan pas de deux” with its infamous 32 fouettés (whipping turns) for the ballerina when she chooses to do them. At the State Theater, of the ballerinas I saw, Darci Kistler chose (wisely) not to attempt them, Kyra Nichols did some of them, Monique Meunier got through them all. When the transfixed Siegfried offers marriage to Odile, breaking his pledge to Odette, attention is focused on Rotbart’s triumphant glee at the success of his plot. Odile’s exit is weakly staged, the Prince rushes wildly off; the Queen totters away-all is as usual, except that just as the act ends, and we’re giving thanks that we’ve seen the last of the Jester, here he comes again, tiptoeing and grimacing and breaking the mood as the ballroom comes clunkily apart and clanks offstage, leaving us back at the lake.

Actually, the swift and natural shifts to the two lake scenes are among the more successful of Mr. Martins’ devices; he has always had a talent for telling a story. And the story he chooses to tell in Act 4 is clear also-up to a point. But when the lovers stand defiant together, with Siegfried renewing his pledge, suddenly, inexplicably, the orange menace loses his powers (what he loses, to be literal, is his cape-though not his gloves). Uncaped, he writhes to the ground like the Wicked Witch of the West, and is soon gone. Yet for reasons unclear, at least to me, his defeat doesn’t reunite the lovers. Odette goes back to her swanness, and Siegfried, left alone on stage, collapses in despair. In other words, it’s the end of Giselle . We’ve had Swan Lake s in which the lovers die together and are happily reunited in the afterlife; we’ve had Soviet Swan Lake s in which Siegfried defeats Rotbart by tearing off his wing. But this may be the first Swan Lake in which evil is defeated yet good doesn’t prevail. It’s a puzzlement. Still, much of the actual choreography is strong-the corps has been given beautiful and relevant material, and Mr. Martins has invented a moving exit for Odette as she disappears forever through a cluster of swirling black and white swans. The fastest and least emotionally charged of Swan Lake s is over.

And the dancing? The opening night (and the telecast to come) featured Darci Kistler as Odette-Odile. With her beauty and her radiant presence, her musicality, and the amplitude of her phrasing, she has been a star since her debut almost 20 years ago. (Indeed, Balanchine cast her as Odette only five months after she joined the company.) But injuries have plagued her and she has never recovered her full powers. Mr. Martins, her husband, has presented her tactfully and encouragingly these past several years, and there are roles in which she is serenely effective. It is painful to acknowledge that Odette-Odile is not one of them; she is over-parted and underpowered. Opening night was the first Swan Lake I’ve seen where the incidental dances were more interesting than the main action. Second-cast was City Ballet’s senior, and finest, dancer, Kyra Nichols-totally centered, utterly secure, transcendently in command. As always, she displayed complete dance authority but, perhaps surprisingly, her dramatic instincts were equally assured. This performance went far toward restoring the balance of the ballet. The third Swan Queen was the thrillingly talented Monique Meunier, who has tantalized us since we first saw her nine years ago. In Act 2, she started off so agitated, so distraught, that she seemed to require taming rather than liberating as she lunged and plunged through her entrance and the first encounter with Siegfried. By her solo, she was no longer a wild swan but a swan in love; the third act was impressive and the fourth was ravishing. This is a major dancer at last coming into her own.

The problem with the Siegfrieds is not that they didn’t dance well but that none of them helped suggest the high-romantic love that must ignite between Prince and Swan Queen. Until that happens, this Swan Lake will remain unsatisfying, no matter how well staged and danced. And it is well danced, particularly by the very promising cadre of youngsters on the soloist and demi-soloist level. The “national” dances of the third-act divertissement were considerably more interesting than they are in most Swan Lake s, marred only by the ludicrous costumes for the “Russian dance”; the poor guy is tricked out in a black bolero over a bare chest, a shiny little purple skirtlet above bare knees, and something quaintly Tartary on his head. The dance itself turned out to have some merit, once you could see past the Orientalia.

For the rest, the famous four cygnets are back, doing their inexorable precision work to the delight of the audience-no crowd pleaser is left unexhumed. And to one’s relief (and I’m sure to the relief of the dancers, too) the tempi for the second and third performances were considerably more relaxed than those for the first night. (No doubt the point of the opening-night rush was to speed the gala audience on to its gala dining and dancing.) So why, despite the very competent staging and choreography, does it all end up so unsatisfying? I suspect it’s because Peter Martins understands everything about Swan Lake except its heart.