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Juilliard Dance

Published: October 9, 2013
Category: review

An Odette for the Ages

By Rachel Straus

Sara Mearns as Odette. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

On Sept. 17, New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns entered the pantheon of great interpreters of Swan Lake. Dancing the lyrical Odette (white swan) with elegiac grace, and the sharp Odile (black swan) with erotic hauteur, Mearns almost redeemed Peter Martins’s staging of the ballet about tragic love.

His 1997 production, here viewed at the New York State Theater, is built on the 1895 Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov and the 1951 George Balanchine versions. It features eye-popping costumes and curious sets (conceived by Danish abstract expressionist Per Kirkeby), an abbreviated Tchaikovsky score (conducted at a clip; in this case by Andrew Sills), and a torrent of steps for the corps de ballet. Martin is ballet master in chief, so programming is his prerogative. But the choice of repertoire to lead the fall season was likely motivated as much by ego as by the hope that the box office would continue to capitalize on the renewed interest in the work, thanks to the cinematic success of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), starring Natalie Portman.

Sara Mearns has danced Swan Lake’s dual roles before, but never with this degree of artistry. The audience seemed to agree, rewarding her with a standing ovation at the end. Known for imbuing dance phrases as though they are physical exhalations from a rich inner life, Mearns acknowledged in a recently released City Ballet video that she is not a technical powerhouse (as is the case with Ashley Bouder, also in the video and also performing the role this season). Yet in Act 2, dancing as the evil Odile who dupes the Prince into swearing his love for her, Mearns wholly contradicted herself. She executed 32 powerhouse fouettés*, channeling Pierina Legnani, the fearsome Italian ballerina whose virtuoso minute of fouettés in the 1895 Swan Lake has made them de rigueur for all subsequent Odiles.

After a year shadowed by recovery from a serious injury, Mearns’s current artistic and technical triumphs made the efforts of some other dancers on stage look less significant (notably her partner Jared Angle, who dutifully executed the role of Prince Siegfried). And while Martins’s dance phrases for Odette are mostly true to the choreography handed down from the days of Petipa–in that they marry enlarged gesture (i.e., the use of the arms as swan wings) with the most ecstatically elegant steps in codified ballet (the penché, the bourrée, and the sisonne)— the new dance phrases for the corps look like l’école de danse on steroids.

Martin’s choreography also suffers from homogeneity of ideas and tone. In Act 2, where Prince Siegfried’s birthday is celebrated with a divertissement of dances, the Neapolitan Dance is hardly distinct from the Hungarian and Spanish dances, save for costuming. It all feels like breathless hoopla.

The most troublesome aspect of Martins’s Swan Lake is the speed at which his courtiers and villagers perform. I’ve never seen in one night so many trips and falls. Martins, who boasted on last season’s City Ballet promotional video that his dancers perform faster than any others, may want to rethink whether that style serves this most traditional of ballets, much less his dancers. Only Daniel Ulbricht’s rapid high jumps, turns, and other athleticisms were appropriate to his role, the Jester.

Aside from Mearns’s sensitively wrought performance, the other memorable aspects of Swan Lake are the set design and the ballet’s final moments. Painter Per Kirkeby’s backdrop resembles an impressionistic rendering of the white cracks in the earth’s surface as seen from a satellite. (Kirkeby, no surprise, has a masters degree in arctic geology.) When Mearns appears as Odette and doesn’t acknowledge the audience, the sense of her being separate from human life (because Von Rothbart’s curse transformed her into a swan) is reinforced by Kirkeby’s distance-oriented backdrop. For Act 2, Kirkeby has created a paneled room with enormous black marble doorways. This time, the geological motif is the impenetrability of rock as it relates to the hardness of Odile, as she works with Von Rothbart to destroy Odette’s chances of freedom from her curse through Prince Siegfried’s love.

The last moments of this Swan Lake take their inspiration from the finale of Balanchine’s Serenade (1935), also set to Tchaikovsky, in which a group of dancers moves downstage to upstage on a diagonal, in a triangular formation. In its center, a woman is held aloft, as if an icon in a religious processional. A spotlight shines down on the woman’s chest and arms, and she slowly arches up toward it, as though receiving a message from God. Martins’s Swan Lake approaches its end with a triangular formation of swans moving on a diagonal from downstage to upstage, each exiting into the unlit wings (the void) in a backward bourrée. In the center of this backward processional, Odette recedes on pointe, as though a magnet is pulling her away from her imploring Prince. Two rays of light frame her backward passage. Slowly imprisoned by the enclosing darkness, Mearns raises her head to the indifferent heavens, deaf to her noble call. 

*In a fouetté, one leg quickly whips out from the hip socket, while the working foot responds by rising on pointe. The dancer’s arms and her stallion-strength plié (deep knee bend) control the whipping motion and the body’s revolutions.

Copyright © 2013, Musical America 

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