The Swan Lake that Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov put before the St. Petersburg public in 1895 clearly defined inside and outside. “Inside” was a sumptuous palace and its gardens, where a prince yearned for something to assuage his spiritual longings (the right woman would do). “Outside” was a lakeshore where white swan maidens and their queen danced in the moonlight. They were captives (of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart), but to Prince Siegfried their loveliness exuded freedom.
If Christopher Wheeldon’s adventurous staging of the work for Pennsylvania Ballet strikes some as heretical or confusing, the reason has less to do with his choreography, most of which is adamantly classical and preserves many of the familiar dances to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score, than with his concept and Adrianne Lobel’s beautiful set. These both blur and expand the boundaries between outside and inside. The hero is a leading dancer cast as Siegfried; “outside”—or the real world—is the rehearsal studio; “inside” is an arena for his imaginings about the ballet. The prince’s search for an ephemeral romantic ideal of purity becomes a dancer’s search for perfection and identification with his role.
The scene is a fin-de-siècle dance studio, unmistakably linked to Paris, where Swan Lake is being rehearsed (forget historical accuracy). In a wall-papered “room” with doors, barres, three sets of French windows, and an immense mottled mirror in a gold frame, Degas ballet girls with their bell-shaped white dresses and neck ribbons adjust their slippers and groom themselves. Wheeldon has tackled the studio or backstage atmosphere before (in his 1999 Scènes de Ballet and his 2001 Variations Serieuses); he must love the dialectic between process and performance. As Act I’s festive opening dances begin, props are being taken from a hamper, the dancer (Tamara Hadley) who is to play the queen mother sits at the back reading a book, and seamstresses adjust costumes. The teacher (Pennsylvania Ballet stalwart Jeffrey Gribler bewigged like Jules Perrot) is to play the tutor, and the top-hatted abonné (Alexei Charov) who, with his favors, exerts control over the financially needy dancers, becomes the sorcerer who dominates the swans.
The dancer who is to play Siegfried (I saw Zachary Hench) not only displays his fine jumps, but plays host—watching the charming peasant dances and bravura solos and ingenious threesome weavings of the pas de trois (Amy Aldridge, Martha Chamberlain, and Jermel Johnson on opening night), and dancing a polonaise briefly with a country girl on each arm to show a bit of democratic spirit.
It’s while the Siegfried dancer, left alone at the end of rehearsal, is practicing some steps that the walls become translucent, the mirror reflects blue depths and vanishes, the French windows blow open, and forbidding gray-green water appears beyond the balcony. The dancer enters his own vision of the ballet.
Pennsylvania Ballet numbers only 40 dancers, and various factors mandated a single set. Between them, Lobel’s decor and Wheeldon’s skill at patterning make the space magical and flexible. As the familiar, slightly rearranged pas unfold—the patterned flocking of the swans, Odette’s solo, the dances for two “big” swans and four methodically scampery little ones, the magisterial and heart-stirring pas de deux—Wheeldon has swans fly by behind the back “wall” or sit, posed, along the side corridors during the pas de deux. Natasha Katz’s lighting turns the gauzy walls watery blue-green, but the fact that they are there at all reminds us of the porous boundaries between the dual dancing worlds. At one point Von Rothbart herds his swans like an exasperated ballet master.
Wheeldon, reared on the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake, preserves the mime in which Odette explains the magic spell to Siegfried. I also like the fact that the pas de deux is not conducted at the fashionable pace (so slow the musicians can hardly sustain the melody). It’s touching the way the swans flock around their queen in a tableau that makes her the center of an immense living tutu. Of the company’s three Odette-Odiles, I saw Riolama Lorenzo. She doesn’t “act” love and despair. Wheeldon told the Dance Critics Association in a session during the organization’s conference in Philadelphia that, since the Pennsylvania dancers didn’t have the background in acting that he grew up with in the Royal, he preferred them to let the movement speak, as they do in the sizable Balanchine repertory that has graced the company since its inception in 1963 under Barbara Weisberger. Lorenzo is strong and pliant; when she arches backward in her partner’s arms or stretches a leg high in an attitude, her body seems to blossom. Hench is excellent in his dancing and understated in the gestures he must keep making to vanishing women in white, the dreamer almost too bemused by his own dream.
Wheeldon’s concept has its problems (it would have been useful, for instance, if the dancer playing Odette had appeared in Act I). A dancer alone in the studio is a likely candidate for dreaming; a dancer at a boisterous party in the studio, with drink flowing and ballet girls sitting around tables beside tailcoated admirers, is less likely to identify with his role. Goodbye Degas, hello Toulouse-Lautrec. Here, Wheeldon departs most strenuously from Petipa’s choreography. No prospective brides for Siegfried. The Von Rothbart performer provides the entertainment, ushering in the acts like a sleazy cousin of The Nutcracker‘s Drosselmayer. The acts are sleazy too, or at least suggestive. As a woman in a long multi-layered white gown (Amy Aldridge) bourrées about in Tchaikovsky’s slow, seductive Russian dance, roistering men pull strings attached to her garments until she’s in her underwear. The Spanish dance is a trio for two seedy men (James Ihde and Brian Debes) and Tara Keating gotten up like Lautrec’s La Goulue in a tight green satin dress. In the czardas, Meredith Rainey swings his partner, Valerie Amiss, into the air with vulgar gusto, and Tchaikovsky’s Tarantella becomes a cancan for five women who appear to have imbibed a lot of absinthe.
The transition to Odile’s appearance and the fatal pas de deux is more of a scenic one than a change in the Siegfried dancer’s consciousness. As the crowd moves out onto the balcony to chat about the view, the debauched Von Rothbart character ushers Odile in through a door in the mirror, and puts her through her paces like a Svengali with a femme-fatale Trilby. As in earlier versions of the ballet, she consults with him often about her next strategy. Blinded by magic and desire, Siegfried breaks his vow to Odette to marry her and free her (although we didn’t see him actually swear).
When the curtain rises on Act IV, the hero is deeper in his dream; the back wall has disappeared leaving only the forbidding lake. The transition is confusing, but Wheeldon skillfully builds the mazes and clusters that obstruct Siegfried’s search for Odette into the powerful moment when they rush together and he lifts her high. That moment, exalting the power of love, causes Von Rothbart to act as if he were being stuck with large pins. The empowered swans rebel and all but finish him off. Siegfried swears his love, but it’s too late, and Odette exits with her flock, presumably to die. The walls and mirror return, and as the hero is wondering what happened to him, the Degas girls reappear, fixing their hair, their skirts, their shoes. So does the dancer who played Odette-Odile; they stare at each other. Curtain.
Wheeldon, arguably the most gifted young choreographer working in a classical vein, is prodigal in terms of invention. Despite flaws in terms of story line, his choreography is full of wonderful movement ideas, and he mingles these smoothly with the existent steps. He has changed the familiar order of some of the musical passages and, with conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, done a bit of editing, but it should be remembered that Petipa and Ivanov altered Tchaikovsky’s original score for the not well-liked 1877 Moscow production by Julius Reisinger. Pennsylvania Ballet’s Swan Lake is an ambitious undertaking and a bold one, and the company does Wheeldon proud. It cannot give us an experienced, world-class Siegfried and Odette. Instead, the dancers look committed and fresh in their approach, as if Swan Lake were an exciting new ballet, instead of just the next step in an organization’s growth. Wheeldon has acquainted these performers with the ballet’s magic but has also made it new, brought it closer to their world. As every dancer knows, the realities of a life in dance and the illusions created in performance jostle together every day—in the studio, on the stage, in the mind.