Three Debuts, One a Surprise, In Martins’ Efficient Swan Lake

Peter Martins’ Swan Lake does its job—it gets people into the theater ( all Swan Lakes get people into the theater), and then it gets them out of the theater in only two and a half hours. In other words, it’s efficient, and if efficiency is what you look for in ballet, this is the production for you. If your taste runs to beauty, feeling, resonance, stay home and listen to your favorite recording of Tchaikovsky’s great score. At least you won’t be distracted from it.

What to make of Act I? In traditional Swan Lakes, it’s Prince Siegfried’s 21st-birthday celebration, his coming-of-age. The entire court, from his mother the Queen on down, is on hand. We see the formal world he inhabits—his old, affectionate tutor; the courtiers and peasants who dance to amuse him; his friend Benno, who leads a charming pas de trios for his pleasure; the Queen, who presents him with a crossbow and reminds him that it’s now time for him to marry, as a prince must. There are pretty girls who would be happy to dance with him, if only he wanted to dance with them.

But we sense that despite the happiness of the occasion, Siegfried is not content or at peace—he’s restless, he’s disaffected, he’s yearning for something beyond all this formality; he’s yearning for a profound love, not one commanded by his mother. And when he hears the first strains of the famous swan theme, he’s off to meet his fate, and his doom.

For Martins, all this is reduced to a mere divertissement—a series of dances, ably staged, with no content whatsoever. The party, if that’s what it is, is populated by eight couples—“villagers,” the program tells us, though if they’re villagers, why are the men’s costumes in the same style as the Prince’s? And where’s the court? And why are 16 horribly self-conscious and smirking children trotted on, other than to elicit oohs and aahs from the audience? The indescribably ugly set—dreary colors leaking down a charmless beige background—and the corrosively bilious costumes in rancid greens and oranges add to the general gloom. I think we’re meant to be in some kind of arcade. To cheer things up, there’s a single dark-brown wooden chair for Siegfried. And how to tell that he’s restless, disaffected, yearning? He has absolutely nothing to do or to respond to. The central figure in this act is a totally irrelevant jester, endlessly leaping and cavorting, leeching all possible seriousness from the enterprise.

And so Act II, the first lakeside act—with more Danish expressionist décor, which as it happens doesn’t really show the lake—comes out of nowhere. There’s been a moment back at the arcade when Siegfried vaguely senses something out there calling, calling. We’re given a quick, untraditional glimpse of the villain, Von Rotbart, luring him on—so that it’s not Siegfried’s own longings that lead to the tragedy but something out of a monster melodrama. Then clunk, clunk, clunk, the arcade dismantles itself and we’re ready for the hunters, the swans and Odette herself. But since she doesn’t answer to any internal urgency in Siegfried, there’s no emotional content to their meeting, nor is there any mime to explain why she’s there, who she is or, for that matter, who that nasty creature is, darting around getting in the way. He’s Mr. Orange Cape, that’s who he is, and that’s what Von Rotbart’s entire performance is reduced to.

Act III, the “black act,” is set in what half a dozen years ago I described as a look-alike for the waiting room of the Poughkeepsie train station—I’ve been back to check, and I got it right. Again, there’s not much of a court to welcome the six princesses on display for the Prince to choose among, and the courtiers on hand are no more interested in them than Siegfried is. On comes Odile, she and Siegfried hurry off, and we’re into the endless divertissement, beginning with a very effective Martins pas de quatre: He’s always good at this kind of classical pastiche, and we soak it up like parched earth. Then the national dances: Hungarian, Russian, Spanish, Neapolitan—it’s like the “Small World” boat ride at Disneyland. They’re mostly standard and well-crafted, except for the studiedly “sexy” Russian one, which is endlessly long and tedious and features the unforgettable male costume of little black bolero over bare chest, brocaded tea cozy on the head and violet skirt above the knee. Who will join me in a class-action suit to rescue the poor guys who have to appear in this ludicrous get-up?

The Black Swan pas de deux rolls in, climaxed by the famous fouettés that everyone’s counting on (and counting): Some ballerinas get through all 32 of them, others stop (wisely) at 12 or so. There’s a strange little moment when Rotbart keeps patting and stroking his daughter’s arms and shoulders. What are we meant to think? And then the deed is done: Siegfried pledges himself to the wrong swan, Odile’s perfidy is revealed, and the wicked pair make their (botched) exit. Despair.

The final act is the closest Martins comes to an imaginative approach to Swan Lake. Siegfried rushes to the lake after Odette, but she makes it clear that they can never be together. Yet somehow their love, though doomed, is enough to destroy Rotbart, and he collapses in a puddle of orange cloak. (I found myself whispering, “What did he die of?” A colleague nearby muttered: “Boredom.”) There’s no struggle between good and evil, there’s no apotheosis, but there’s an exciting mass exit of swans, enveloping Odette and leaving Siegfried behind. It’s far closer to the end of Giselle than of Swan Lake, but the lovers’ being thwarted and the sentencing of Odette to eternal swanness suits Peter Martins’ cynical vision of a Swan Lake that values a jester and an orange cape above the profound claims and dangers of romantic love.

Why would sane critics attend three performances within two days of this eviscerated classic? Only because three dancers were making consecutive debuts as Odette-Odile. (Actually, there were four debuts: I didn’t see Jenifer Ringer earlier on.)

City Ballet is having casting problems: Kyra Nichols and Darci Kistler, the veterans, are no longer up to so demanding a role; Maria Kowroski is out due to illness; Jennie Somogyi is not yet fully recovered from her injury (after being announced for the role, she sensibly withdrew). Naturally, Sofiane Sylve was called upon—she’s been dancing European Swan Lakes for years and is in full command of the role. Strong, resolute, she presents the standard plastique we associate with Odette and Odile. In a company whose girls indicate their birdness by flapping their wrists, she remembers that she has arms—in her second-act exit, she actually ripples them, reminding us that we’re in Swan Lake, not Pigeon Park. What prevents her from being moving is that before she’s Odette or Odile, she’s generic Ballerina: She masters roles easily, but doesn’t seem deeply invested in them. In this ballet, she’s cool rather than tragic. But, of course, the whole Martins version is cool, so she’s not at odds with it; she just can’t or won’t transcend it.

Ashley Bouder is a terrific dancer but an odd bird—she comes on at full throttle, all agitation. The legs and arms aren’t beautiful; there’s no cantilena, no soul, but there also are no technical problems. Since she’s an allegro powerhouse, she’s more happily suited to Odile than to Odette, but she made a success of Martins’ Act IV, which invites agitation rather than plangency.

The surprise event of the season was the casting of Sara Mearns, a girl in the corps who’s never before been cast in a featured role. Sara who? Usually, when a new dancer is propelled into a major role, you can see it coming; not this time. Martins took a big risk, and it paid off. Mearns is a pretty, mid-height, non-anorexic blonde with elegant legs and feet and, more important, a real lyricism—something not in large supply at City Ballet. She also showed amazing composure, considering the pressure she was under. She doesn’t have the strength of a Sylve or a Bouder, but she has a distinctive, appealing quality, and she communicated a sense of sorrow in the white acts. (Her Odile was more tentative.) The real question is: Now that Martins has launched her so spectacularly, what is he going to do with her? Let’s hope he’s digested the lesson of Carla Körbes, who was kept waiting far too long and is now lost to the company.

And the Siegfrieds? About Nilas Martins, all one can say is that he’s less of a disaster as a partner than in solos. Benjamin Millepied, Bouder’s Prince, is so diminished both physically and in dance strength that he made no impression at all: In any case, Bouder needs someone larger and stronger to frame and contain her. Charles Askegard, though hardly an immaculate dancer, was by far the best of the male principles. His solo at the end of Act II, for instance, was not just a bunch of standard guy steps, but a burst of jubilation at having fallen in love. Yet although he could generate feeling about Sylve, he couldn’t generate feeling with her.

Is the Martins Swan Lake worth seeing? No. But it’s worth performing, because it gives so many chances to so many demi-soloists, and there’s a big new crop of very capable young girls—and even a few potentially good boys. The strongest piece of pure dancing I saw came from Joaquin De Luz in the pas de quatre—there’s no one else at City Ballet with his perfect training and joyous brio. If only he were three inches taller! As it is, he can only really partner the smallest of the girls, like Megan Fairchild—in fact, when they appeared together in the pas de quatre, it got the biggest spontaneous applause of the day. In fairness to Peter Martins, I should report that the audience also enjoyed all the jesters. Never underestimate the power of cute.