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Theodore Bale
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Citi Performing Arts Center - Wang Theatre
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Boston Ballet in Swan Lake

by Theodore Bale
May 1, 2008
Citi Performing Arts Center - Wang Theatre
270 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116-5692
617-482-9393
May 1-11, 2008
Whenever I find myself at yet another performance of Swan Lake, I cannot avoid comparing the current production to those in recent memory. Last Thursday at Boston Ballet's opening night of artistic director Mikko Nissinen's revised version, I thought of Anthony Dowell, Matthew Bourne, and Christopher Wheeldon. Each of those men imposed another layer of thinking upon Petipa and Ivanov's uncertain original. Dowell, for example, set a production for The Royal Ballet in Imperial Russia, amplifying his interpretation with Yolanda Sonnabend's Fabergé-inspired designs and Roland John Wiley's musicological refinements. His staging remains my all-time favorite, but Bourne's, with its Freudian overtones, homoeroticism, and furtive references to the British Royal family, is equally unforgettable. And when I saw the premiere of Wheeldon's Degas-like rendition for Pennsylvania Ballet, I was strangely delighted by his third-act can-can chorus line and his dream-based original narrative. These productions continue the tradition asserted by such luminaries as John Cranko, Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn in previous years; namely, that Swan Lake is an open forum ripe for archetypal and/or highly personal analysis and elucidation.

Nissinen refutes this mode of thinking, giving us rather something extremely plain and straightforward, and it's not all bad. His "reaction" here is, at the least, an honest attempt at some kind of purification. In program notes he explains simply, "I am proud to revive my version of Swan Lake this season using different sets. This classic tale, based on Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's traditional rendition, was devotedly put together by my artistic staff, with assistance from Sorella Englund and Alla Nikitina." The sets by Peter Cazalet were provided courtesy of Ballet West. Englund served as dramaturge and guest repetiteur; Nikitina assisted with the third-act character dances.

The opening night performance was racked with technical difficulties, last-minute cast changes, and a sense of nervous delivery that suggested too few rehearsals. There was a sense of excitement in the air nevertheless, and throughout I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what might fail or succeed next. Instead of Lorna Feijoo as Odette/Odile and Yury Yanowsky as Prince Siegfried, the second-night cast appeared: Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine. Pavel Gurevich took over for Sabi Varga as Von Rothbart. The house lights came up after the first act and as audience members headed for the bar, an announcer quickly explained it was only a pause. Consequently, everyone talked through the second-act overture. The curtain came down too quickly at the conclusion of Act II. A backdrop of the Great Hall in Act III climbed mysteriously towards the proscenium arch, revealing a haphazard arrangement of backstage equipment as well as two human legs in a pair of pointe shoes at the top of a platform, ready to bourée along behind the "real" swan on stage. A famous illusion ruined, it was a funny moment for Swan Lake veterans and a perplexing one for newcomers. The audience swooned, and the glitch was obviously unnerving for the cast. Ponomarenko appeared confident throughout the Black Swan pas de deux and variations, however, until it came time to deliver the infamous thirty-two fouettés. She faltered and came off pointe on the 25th repetition, and then regained her balance and continued along with five more before striking a hasty pose to finish. Jonathan McPhee kept the orchestra in sync with her deviation, and I thought to myself, "Well-done! Disaster averted! continuons!"

Boston Ballet has no official brand of pointe-shoe, and one wondered during the opening valse of the corps de ballet if a few of the women had been way too generous with the rosin or if their brand was just the noisier. Half of them squeaked blatantly on the enormous Wang Theatre stage. The Act I pas de trois was largely uneventful, save the soft musicality of Melissa Hough and James Whiteside's confident partnering and exquisite, elastic jumps. Whiteside is young and yet a Second Soloist with Boston Ballet, but he is proving himself as a significant artist in both the classical repertory and in challenging contemporary work by such choreographers as Helen Pickett and Jorma Elo. Visiting choreographers routinely cast him in prominent roles, and with good reason.

Ponomarenko has performed Odette/Odile many times and she is without doubt a grand interpreter of the roles: mesmerizing and introspective in Acts II and IV, and pungently extroverted in Act III. Her understanding is sophisticated and often musically-based. In the Act II pas de deux when she repeats an arabesque and the music modulates up a half-step, for example, her extension becomes just a bit higher. Nissinen has given her some gorgeous back bends and expressive hand gestures while Rykine is lifting her, and the mime is noticeably diminished throughout the entire ballet. He wants the narrative to emerge from the classical movement instead, another attempt at purification and perhaps a method for keeping the overall look and feel contemporary.

Rykine is less impressive as soloist, despite his evident technical expertise. I believe the problem is rooted in his facial expressions, which read either as blank or confused. For some reason he has been an obstinate actor in every classical role he's taken on since he joined Boston Ballet five years ago. Nonetheless, I respect him for his devoted attention to Ponomarenko, and in a recent interview he explained to me that he tries to partner her in a way that makes him largely unnoticeable. He's succeeded at that goal, as noble as it might be, but he needs to exude more charisma when he is alone, particularly in a production where there is no Benno to play Robin to his Batman.

Other details that set this production apart are an odd pas de cinq in the early part of Act III, set to music I don't remember ever hearing before. It's sparse and filled with what seems like fragments of various melodies, recalling the earlier romantic compositions of Webern. I later checked my score and the section appears to be what was once danses du corps de ballet et des nains, since I didn't remember seeing a dwarf on stage. Nissinen has revised the ending as well. At the final moments, "Von Rothbart is destroyed and the lovers are united," as is described in the program. It's an anti-climax, however, as the score concludes while moving into the parallel major key.
Boston Ballet in Swan Lake

Boston Ballet in Swan Lake

Photo © & courtesy of Eric Antoniou


Boston Ballet in Swan Lake Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine

Boston Ballet in Swan Lake
Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine

Photo © & courtesy of Gene Schiavone


Boston Ballet in Swan Lake Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine

Boston Ballet in Swan Lake
Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine

Photo © & courtesy of Gene Schiavone


Boston Ballet in Swan Lake Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal

Boston Ballet in Swan Lake
Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal

Photo © & courtesy of Eric Antoniou


Boston Ballet in Swan Lake Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal

Boston Ballet in Swan Lake
Lorna Feijoo and Nelson Madrigal

Photo © & courtesy of Gene Schiavone

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