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New York City Ballet - Swan Lake

by Robert Abrams
May 9, 2003
Lincoln Center
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.
140 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023
212.875.5456

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New York City Ballet - Swan Lake

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Review by Robert Abrams
May 9, 2003

The easy way to review New York City Ballet's Swan Lake is to agree with the audience member who was overheard to say that best part of the performance was the music and the choreography, and then to disagree with him by saying that it only appears this way because NYCB's dancers do such a good job of working as an ensemble that each dancer's high level of performance may not get noticed as such because she is surrounded by so many high level dancers.

It would be easy to say that each dancer is more lovely than the last in an endless circle - the six princesses being a case in point (Saskia Beskow, Dana Hanson, Glenn Keenan, Carla Körbes, Deanna McBrearty and Eva Natanya). Since each princess is featured more than once, one can argue that their beauty is effectively infinite because their dancing builds on each other in what can be inferred as an endless spiral.

It would be easy to describe the dancers' technical accomplishments and the rapt response it produced in the audience. Maria Kowroski, as Odette, falls into Siegfried's (Philip Neal's) arms with ultimate grace, as if gravity were an option. Groups of swans seem to open like mo(u)rning flowers at Siegfried's touch. Janie Taylor demonstrated amazingly supple drops into the arms of Nikolaj Hübbe in the Russian Dance. Amanda Edge and Antonio Carmena sometimes seemed to pause mid-leap in the Neapolitan Dance. At several points in the ballet, the stage is filled with waves of color. If that wasn't enough, these waves were filled out in two big production numbers by small, but numerous, children from the School of American Ballet who were both proficient dancers and too cute for words.

Praising the New York City Ballet is easy. Deciphering swans is difficult. Until the federal government sees fit to fund a Swan Genome Project, the following analysis is going to have to suffice.

In this analysis, the method is to take the production as a body of evidence, and then look in that body of evidence for key patterns that will have explanatory power in our quest to understand swans, and through swans, dance more generally.

Three such key patterns were evident to me in this production. The first was the crossbow, the second was Jackson Pollock and the third was found by examining which characters danced and which did not dance.

Siegfried receives a crossbow as a gift. He proceeds to dance around with it. The dancing was beautiful, but the way he danced with it suggested that it was a very lightweight crossbow. A crossbow is a serious weapon which takes the old idea of the bow and arrow and applies mechanical advantage to make the effect as deadly as possible. Perhaps if Siegfried understood the melancholy seriousness of the weapon he was dancing with, he would have been better prepared to recognize Rotbart (Henry Seth) for the evil that he is when he first met him. I think that choreographers would be likely to learn a great deal about swans if they tried creating a version of Swan Lake that treated the crossbow for what it really is. Even without this, though, understanding the nature of the crossbow, one can better appreciate Siegfried's vulnerability. The way Siegfried treats the crossbow reveals his essential naivete. One can thus see this vulnerability as a tragic flaw, in the Aristotelian sense. From a modern perspective, Siegfried's losing of Odette even after vanquishing Rotbart makes no sense, but from this older view of the world any other outcome would be unthinkable.

Jackson Pollock doesn't literally appear in this production, but Per Kirkeby and Kirsten Lund Nielsen must have had his work in mind when they designed the scenery and costumes for the Jester. Both look like they have paint splattered everywhere in a manner that seems to have been created by random action, yet the effect suggests powerful purpose. Even the walls of the palace in the second act, which bear a strong resemblance to the translucent stone used in the rare books library at Yale, echo this Pollock-like paint pattern. If you read the program notes that describe the ballet's plot, the Jester reads as a minor character. Yet the Jester, danced by Adam Hendrickson, dances prominently throughout the ballet. The convergence of the design elements in the set with the design elements in the Jester's costume are too forceful to ignore. Siegfried is missing a power to counter-balance Rotbart. It would be entirely fitting if Siegfried found that power right beside him, always blind to it while he could still see. You can see where this is going. Peter Martins needs to choreograph a sequel to Swan Lake. It is not as far fetched as it sounds. After all, Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus as well as Oedipus Rex. Siegfried needs an honest creativity to overcome Rotbart's selfish illusions. And just think about it: as impressive as the NYCB dancers are when they spin (and some of this impressiveness requires thinking about what they are actually doing: in some passages they perform a series of many 360 degree rotations en pointe perfectly in time to the music - that is impressive enough, but you have to remember that the music is coming from a live orchestra, so there has to be communication between the dancer and the orchestra through the conductor, Richard Moredock - this is very difficult to do, but they make it look effortless), imagine how impressive the effect of their spins would be if they were holding a bucket of paint.

In such a sequel, Rotbart could be vanquished with a crossbow or with a bucket of paint, but like some undead monster, he would just keep coming back. It seems clear to me, by looking carefully at the choreography in this production, that the only way to vanquish Rotbart forever is to teach him to dance. Rotbart is a major character, and while he does swoop across the stage in a few scenes, and gets to emote forcefully at several key points, he doesn't really dance. Clearly the lack of dance in his life has corrupted his heart. The Jester, by contrast, may appear to be a minor character for the plot, but he dances very prominently. Through some paper thin plot device involving the six princesses, a bucket of paint and the piano from Vespro, Rotbart learns to dance, realizes the error of his ways, apologizes to Odile for forcing her to commit identity theft, which frees her to pursue funding for the third ballet in the trilogy which will finally let her tell her side of the story. Rotbart, having been redeemed, gets accidentally shot by a crossbow so he can die dramatically, but as a sympathetic character, and Siegfried and Odette get married and live happily ever after raising a flock of cygnets, but only because Odette has learned that Siegfried may be lovable, but he is also a little naïve, so she makes sure she is in charge of the family finances.

Will we ever fully understand swans? Probably not. Nonetheless, we have enough evidence at hand to say with confidence that once you have loved a swan, there is no going back. I am confident that the New York City Ballet will have this effect on you too.


Ballet: Swan Lake
Choreography by Peter Martins after Petipa, Ivanov and Balanchine
Dancer: Maria Kowroski
Photo courtesy of Paul Kolnik

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