By Rachel Straus
NEW YORK-- “Swan Lake” may be the hardest work in the classical repertoire to do well. First, the plot is perhaps the best known in the canon (undoubtedly one reason “Black Swan” has done so well at the box office). Second, any ballet company worth its salt performs it – or tries to anyway.
Given its Russian origins, “Swan Lake” is de rigueur for the Russian National Ballet Theater, which brought it to the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts on April 17, one of 80 (!!) stops on its four-month, one-night-stand tour of the U.S. That the 2,350-seat theater was filled to near capacity is as much a testament to the work’s popularity as it is to the Stateside reputation of company and the number of Russians living in New York.
The plot of “Swan” concerns the Princess Odette, who has been transformed into a White Swan by an evil sorcerer. Prince Siegfried, nevertheless, falls for her. The sorcerer then dupes the Prince, creating an alluring female double—the Black Swan Odile. The prince betroths Odile. Disconsolate, Odette chooses to die rather than live under the sorcerer’s spell. The prince kills himself, reuniting with his Odette in the afterlife.
RNBT’s version retains one Soviet-style tick (the company was originally called the Soviet National Ballet). The lovers don’t die in the finale, since dying for love was considered a decadent western romantic notion in the USSR. Otherwise, this “Swan” was more often than not similar to versions currently dominating the stage.
The oldest and most popular iteration of the work, performed (with choreographic variants) by major companies, comes from the Russian Imperial Ballet’s 1895 revival by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, a production that lasted almost four hours and employed 100-plus performers. The second most popular version is that of the all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, whose 17 dancers perform the female roles in drag. Act II clocks in at less than 30 minutes, and the virtuosic tricks are done less with virtuosity than satiric vitriol.
The Russian National Ballet’s “Swan” has elements of both. While it aims for the Petipa version (serious and sumptuous), it does so with the size of the Trockadero (small and, though unintentional, spoofy). In Act I Prince Siegfried (as performed by Ruslan Mukhambetkaliev) is attended to by a retinue of six couples. That’s small for a royal court. When Tchaikovsky’s melodies soar, six waltzing pairs fail to match the music’s sense of grand gesture or the impact of the large orchestral forces.
Still, the company deserves praise for its Petipa-style values. The women are well trained; their pointe work is precise. This was especially notable in Act II, when the 16 Swan Maidens walk on pointe in unison and raise and lower their arms in bird-like gestures. Ekaterina Egorova was less than successful in the dual role of Odette/Odile. Her ramrod spine doesn’t lend itself to the White Swan’s signature quality: a supple, spiraling neck and torso. Only when she performed the famous fuettes [repeated turns on one leg, the other bending and straightening to create a kind of whipping action] in the Black Swan finale did it become clear why artistic director Elena Radchenko had chosen her for the role. Egorova turns like a top; she dances with cool clarity and possesses a hyper-long leg line that conforms to today’s vision of what a prima ballerina should look like. And then there are her arms – as long as an airplane’s wings.
Still, despite its apparent goal, there was no way this 35-member troupe could project the grandness of Petipa’s battalion of dancers, especially since no more than 16 dancers can fit on the stage; the Walt Whitman Theater is certainly no opera house. And then there was the problem of the mediocre sound system, not to mention the physical toll of the company’s touring schedule. Some of dancers, particularly the male leads, were less than buoyant in their jumps.
To succeed “Swan Lake” requires gravitational transcendence from its dancers. They must sing Tchaikovsky’s music with their movements. The soloist Ekaterina Pankovskaya did so, when she bounded through the air in her role as one of the Prince’s prospective brides. When Mukhambetkaliev as the Prince and Evgeny Rudakov as the sorcerer soared in a unison skip, it too was powerful. On the other hand, Mukhambetkaliev’s acting was not believable, bringing to mind more an amiable man on dope than a prince willing to sacrifice his crown for the love of a creature in a glade.