Swanning Again


Does anyone ever wonder how Swan Lake would progress if Prince Siegfried went right home from his revelatory lakeside experience and told his mother he loved a part-time bird? Of course not. We don’t really care about the plot’s occasional unreasonableness because somehow it wrings our hearts. However, beginning with the major 1895 revision of an 1877 scenario, ballet masters have remodeled the work; their changes often aim to justify an easily duped hero’s tragic adventure into love and betrayal.

American Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, enters the lists with an agenda. Since the story, for the most part, is told from Siegfried’s point of view, why not focus more closely on him? Marius Petipa’s 1895 Siegfried, Pavel Gerdt, was a bit long in the tooth when he played the role, but McKenzie has a bevy of lithe young virtuosos to cast. He has sacrificed the mournful and consoling Act IV dances for the swans and their abandoned queen (we don’t need to know how she feels) and created a number of uninspiring, lyrically bounding solos for the prince.

He’s also had some excellent ideas to further the drama. His Act I waltz is more about the ensemble doing festive dances than watching set pieces: Couples become trios, people leave and rejoin, six men show off, the prince gets briefly embroiled with two women but would rather dance alone. You get the feeling (very strongly from Vladimir Malakhov) that this prince tries his best to be interested in court beauties, although one of the charming peasant girls who dances the pas de trois with his friend Benno is more intriguing.

In Act III, the marriageable princesses number only four, representing four countries (as do the princes in Sleeping Beauty). Each sponsors one of the showy national dances (partly Petipa, with the usual tarantella replaced by pirouette competition for two Neapolitan men). And while Siegfried is offstage, presumably getting to know the wicked Odile better, an unusually accomplished von Rothbart distracts the attention of the queen with a dazzling solo, and romances the four mesmerized princesses. (I should mention that this sleek sorcerer has a not-so-nice aspect, represented by another dancer with a disconcertingly prurient interest in real swans.)

McKenzie has left Lev Ivanov’s more or less sacrosanct Act II choreography alone. The production is lovely to look at and magnificently danced. Zach Brown’s sets evoke imagined Romantic vistas of the 16th century, and his costumes are sumptuous. Julie Kent’s Odile looks magically more powerful—larger, even—than her delicate, tender, poignantly articulated Odette. Malakhov uses his innate courtliness and noble line to suggest a sweet prince confused by his own desires. Outstanding among the fine performers (including the company as a whole) are Irina Dvorovenko, silken in the Act I pas de trois, and Marcelo Gomes as the classy von Rothbart with Brian Reeder as his muscled inner self.

I miss the fake swans that in many productions creak rather than glide over the lake. Without them, a key plot element is blurred and Tchaikovsky’s superb water music ignored. But by and large, McKenzie has told his tale discerningly and with grace.

Some of ABT’s mixed bills feature a revival of Antony Tudor’s great Jardin aux Lilas, staged by one of its great interpreters, Sallie Wilson. You can see how, in this subtle ballet, Wilson has worked to bring out nuances from dancers used to creating large effects. In Tudor’s compressed and enigmatic short story, two passionate affairs terminate for the sake of respectability. This is a twilight dance that looks forward to an uncertain future. Everyone is guarded. Loves that for unknown reasons must be denied must also be hidden from the friends who enter and leave this garden as if seeking some air before returning to the party. But there’s no fresh air for the lovers to breathe; they seem to be constantly holding their breath. In one cast, Julie Kent looks a little too much the victim—not enough backbone—and RobertHill doesn’t have the solidity I expect from herhusband-to-be. Sandra Brown is wonderfully impulsive as his mistress, and Maxim Belotserkovsky gallant as Kent’s lover. But they’re still groping for the essential meaning in a single turn of the head, a lift of the hand.

Was Don Juan versed in contact improvisation as well as swordplay and clandestine fornication? Iréne Hultman can make you believe it. And just as Gershwin songs mingled with Prokofiev in her 1996 Cascade (an extremely subtle deconstruction of the Romeo and Juliet scenario), at the climax of the new Love, Betrayal, and a Bowling Trophy, Frank Sinatra exulting that he did it his way surges through the final cataclysmic, down-to-hell music of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Over the years, Hultman has focused her unusual musicality and richly variegated movement imagination on tales and traditions ranging from Beauty and the Beast to thetango. This time she collaborates with fourgifted performers to fabricate this deliciously obstreperous vision of love’s sallies and jousts, keying her narrative to ravishing arias from Don Giovanni plus fragments of text adapted from Molière’s Don Juan and other sources. I can’t imagine the work without actor-dancer Colin Gee as the priapic hero. Nimble, eloquent, and world-weary, he flourishes his way in and out of trouble. Hultman depicts him and his servant Leporello (a/k/a Sganarelle) constantly galloping away from, and into, danger—as if the Don’s amorous career involved much jumping out of windows onto handy horses. “Do you want us to bind ourselves to the first object that captures our affections?” he inquires, astride his trotting servant (Andrew Robinson). And many of his ruminations occur while he’s being levered into new and curious positions.

There’s more than a trace of commedia dell’arte buffoonery in Love, Betrayal. Gee rapturously and at length sniffs sexy Gabrielle Malone (the long-ago “wife” Elvira); she pushes him away disdainfully, then smells herself, wondering, perhaps, what he found beguiling. Robinson (terrific, if mugging a bit too heavily) dances to Leporello’s great Mozartean catalog of his master’s conquests as if ducking chamber pots emptied from above. Gee concludes a speech with a backflip. Master and servant collapse to the floor and lie there, feet twitching rhythmically, while Lisa Östberg (Donna Anna/Mathurine) dances with cool provocativeness. (The women’s characters and goals are less defined than the men’s.) A trio for Malone and the guys is an elegant slapstick carnival of lecherous lifts. The sexes declare war by crouching and barking.

The work is deeper and more nuanced than it might sound. Hultman weaves its elements with sure control, rarely lapsing in her mix of the hallowed, the contemporary, and the timeless (Östberg, alas, announces, “I’m so fucking gorgeous”). The dancers’ clothes are a bit too any-old, but there’s nothing sloppy about their performing or about Hultman’s wit and wisdom.

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