A Surfeit of Swans

Peter Martins Revamps a Classic

It's a miracle that the dowager Swan Lake has survived so many face-lifts since her debut in 1877. The old girl has great bones: Tchaikovsky's sumptuous music, sublime passages of choreography created by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in the 1890s, a challenging dual role for ballerinas, and a tale of fatal love in which we sympathize less with the flawed hero than with the gallant enchanted creature—swan by day, princess by night—whom he fails to rescue.

In George Balanchine's 1951 reimagining of Ivanov's second and fourth acts, there was no betrayal, just an unachievable love traced through poetic dancing—the artist-seeker and his elusive muse. In 1975, Balanchine said to Nancy Reynolds, "Why don't I do Giselle? Why don't I do Swan Lake full-length? Because they're impossible, absolutely impossible. It's difficult to explain." Balanchine's successor Peter Martins has no such qualms; his retooled Swan Lake—created for the Royal Danish Ballet—has nested at the New York City Ballet (whose sea son at the New York State Theater ends June 27).

And, lord, how she's dressed and what a palace she's landed in! Why would anyone used to the elegance of white feathers want to join a court whose wood-paneled throne room resembles a hotel lobby and where the prince's women friends wear emerald green, while the men leap about in red and orange? (The prince clashes in royal blue, and his buddy Benno shows sympathy with blue slashes on his red blouse.) On the other hand, Per Kirkeby's wintry lake side backdrops are compelling abstracts evoking rocks, roots, and tangling vines; and the costumes by Kirkeby and Kirsten Lund Nielsen—despite that opening color scheme—deck the story gorgeously.

Benjamin Bowman and junior jesters from the School of American Ballet brighten NYCB’s new Swan Lake.
Paul Kolnik
Benjamin Bowman and junior jesters from the School of American Ballet brighten NYCB’s new Swan Lake.

Martins preserves much of Balanchine's "after Ivanov" choreography, as well as what we assume to be Petipa's classic pas de deux in which the look-alike Odile vamps the prince. This version, however, has been condensed into two acts and packed with dancing. Courtiers do not eat or drink. When the celebrants at Prince Siegfried's birthday bash finally get gob lets, they do a nice little polonaise with them. The pared-down atmosphere notwithstanding, Martins's ballet reveals his upbringing in Den mark's Bournonville tradition as much as his neoclassicism, especially in the low-keyed conviviality of the ensemble and the attention to individual character. Tiny, fancily attired children weave with aplomb through the festive Act I patterns. Benno dances the pas de trois with two girlfriends: "My, you're lovely." "Ah, but so are you." At the fateful ball, each of six princesses trotted out for the prince's approval emerges from the waltzing bevy for a few seconds to show the hero she too can dance on her toes. The jester's loquacity with pirouettes and beating jumps exhausts him; he's always looking for a throne to nap on.

The tragedy becomes a lesson for Siegfried. In the last scene, black and white swans form a shifting curtain before him, as if to say, "Why couldn't you tell the difference?" The power of love causes the sorcerer Von Rotbart to shudder out of his flashy orange satin cloak and slink away, but be cause Siegfried broke his oath to marry Odette, she remains a swan.

A lot of the choreography is new. And fine. And so is the company's per forming. On opening night, Darci Kistler encountered Siegfried (Damian Woetzel) stunningly: a trapped creature fluttering and flailing in panic. But from then on, injury and perhaps nerves made this most radiant of dancers cautious in her attack; one minute she'd be blooming, the next introspective as if consulting her body. It was as if a veil kept descending between her and the role. No passion built up between her and Woetzel's prince. Another night, Monique Meunier and Jock Soto heated things up—she magnificently powerful and sweeping, he grave and intense. Miranda Weese, slightly wilder and more febrile as Odette, brought an especially electrifying intensity to the role of Odile (she performed the Live From Lincoln Center telecast with Woetzel). All the swan queens are, at this point, a little even in their timing, wary of rubato.

One reason for doing this repertory staple is that it offers meaty roles to a number of casts. Among the many standouts: Benjamin Bowman as the jester, Adam Hendrickson flashing his legs like knives in the same role, Benjamin Millepied as Benno, Soto as a demented Von Rotbart, Yvonne Borree in one cast of Martins's ingenious pas de quatre and Sébastien Marcovici and Pascal von Kipnis, her legs flying, in another, Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegard in a sultry Russian gypsy dance costumed skimpily à l'arabe (James Fayette excelled in this too), Albert Evans in the czardas, Marcovici and Christopher Wheeldon as impeccably fierce look-alike Spanish dancers, and those four little wind up swans, Amanda Edge, Carrie Lee Riggins, Janie Taylor, and Elizabeth Walker.

The NYCB's 50th anniversary is being celebrated not only by the unusually rich and ambitious season, but by a book, Dance for a City: Fifty Years of the New York City Ballet (Columbia University Press, 236 pp., $50); an exhibit of the same name at the New-York Historical Society; and related panels and film showings. Lynn Garafola and Eric Foner edited the book and curated the exhibit, which runs until August 15.

The stunning show fills six galleries and dates from the background years to the day before yesterday. There are big, eye-catching objects like costumes and posters and handsome 8x10 photographs. Videos play. But much of my delight is prompted by smaller objects, like a 1933 cable to NYCB founder Lincoln Kirstein confirming Balanchine's trip to America, Balan chine's 1943 draft card, a program for the Ballet Society's 1946 debut at the Central High School of Needle Trades, curly doodles in a Balanchine appointment calendar, snapshots of dancers at play taken by ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, and a pic of LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, and Melissa Hayden on their return from a 1955 tour, showing a little cheesecake on an airport runway for an Associated Press cameraman. There's also a charming Hirschfeld caricature of a bearded Jerome Rob bins assuming a classical stance.

The book is anything but a run-of-the-mill appreciation. Musicologist Charles M. Joseph's essay, "The Making of Agon," is almost reason enough to buy it. Joseph documents Stravinsky's sources for the score and the fascinating back-and-forth between the composer and Kirstein. Sally Banes takes a provocative position in "Sibling Rivalry: The New York City Ballet and Modern Dance"—making every possible connection, including the "constructivist effects" and expressionist grotesqueries in Prodigal Son and the "American" themes that, during the '30s, attracted Kirstein as well as Graham, Humphrey, and Tamiris; she even suggests, daringly, that Cunningham's 1947 The Seasons (for Ballet Society) may have influenced Balanchine to adopt practice clothes for costumes. Thomas Bender's essay links the NYCB, via Kirstein, with the circle of New York intellectuals, such as those who gravitated to Muriel Draper's salon in the '20s, and Garafola's masterful introduction situates the company in the political and social climates that paralleled its development. (Opposite a picture of groundbreaking ceremonies at Lincoln Center is one of local residents protesting the razing of their homes.) I disagree with some of Garafola's emphases—like her characterization of The Four Temperaments, Agon, and Episodes as "anguished and sexually charged" in keeping with postwar anxiety. But such statements scarcely detract from her accomplishment.

There's an abundance of elegantly reproduced illustrations. An essay by Jonathan Weinberg on the ballet photographs of George Platt Lynes includes many of his glowing pictures; some look as if they'd been shot through veils, and a few have an erotic sheen. A portfolio of shots of Robbins is followed by a bonus: a complete chronology of his works for NYCB.

What a birthday party!

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