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Taking aim
Mikko Nissinen puts his mark on Swan Lake
Swan Lake
Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Staging and additional choreography by Mikko Nissinen, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Costumes and sets by John Conklin. Lighting by Pierre Lavoie. With the Boston Ballet Orchestra conducted by Jonathan McPhee. Presented by Boston Ballet at the Wang Theatre through May 23.

The ultimate ballet, Swan Lake is also the ultimate ambivalent ballet. Its 1876 libretto (author unknown) draws on Greek and Irish myth, Russian folklore, The Thousand and One Nights, and any culture where men turn women into swans and then shoot at them. Its primary key, B minor, is the same one that composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky used for his last symphony, the Pathétique. Tchaikovsky himself drew from Richard Wagner (Lohengrin as swan prince, Parsifal as swan slayer, Siegfried as tarnished hero) and perhaps from Wagner’s hero Arthur Schopenhauer as well — that would explain why (in the music as well as the libretto) Siegfried and Odette can free themselves from Rothbart only by dying. Of course, just as White Swan Odette and Black Swan Odile are two sides of the same woman, Siegfried and Rothbart are two sides of the same man. Instead of the eternal triangle, we get the eternal square.

Swan Lake’s history is equally ambivalent. It had two "premieres," one in Moscow in 1877, the second, after Tchaikovsky’s death and a complete overhaul by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother), and Riccardo Drigo, in St. Petersburg in 1895. Neither was a major success. One of the highlights of Tchaikovsky’s score, the third-act Black Swan pas de deux, was actually written for the first act. The concept of the Black Swan isn’t even original: until Alexandra Fedorova-Fokine’s 1941 staging of act three, Odiles wore a rainbow of different colors. George Balanchine created a 35-minute version; Erik Bruhn recast Rothbart as the Black Queen; Matthew Bourne staged an all-male version. Developed by one-time Kirov Ballet director Konstantin Sergeyev in 1990 and reprised thereafter in 1992, 1994, and 1998, Boston Ballet’s version is largely traditional, and it remains so in the current restaging. Company artistic director Mikko Nissinen has streamlined some aspects of the presentation; though the result still runs close to three hours (2:50 as opposed to 2:53 in 1998), it does a have a fresher, cleaner feel. Whether this new edition is an improvement, time will tell; for the moment, the ample strengths of Boston Ballet’s Swan Lake remain the performers, both on stage and in the pit.

Nissinen’s major changes include dropping the role of the jester, restoring the pas de six (here it’s a pas de cinq) at the beginning of the third act, reducing the number of swans from 32 to 24 in the second act and 20 in the fourth (no black swans now), and choreographing a new fourth-act pas de deux for Odette and Siegfried. The jester, a Russian tradition, was in Boston a source of crowd-pleasing virtuosity and an occasional comic distraction. His absence doesn’t undermine the plot, but it does leave Siegfried only his tutor Wolfgang to interact with on the castle lawn. The idea behind the smaller swan corps was better ensemble (even counting Boston Ballet II, the company has only 24 female corps members, so having 32 swans means using guests and students), and that was achieved without much loss of impact on the big Wang stage; credit also guest ballet mistress Lola de Ávila, who was brought in to coach the swans. The new pas de deux gives the fourth act more emotional weight; the material is drawn mostly from the vocabulary of the White Swan pas de deux, but it’s developed rather than merely restated.

The pas de cinq is harder to justify. It adds 10 minutes to a production that the company was looking to shorten, the choreography is conventional, and the five performers aren’t even integrated into the birthday scenario to the extent that the foreign party guests and dancers are. At least the pas de trois in the first act, with one man partnering two women, presages Siegfried’s attraction to Odette and then Odile. In the pas de cinq, more seems less, though the two men vying for the lead lady at the beginning desert her for the two outside women at the end. One could also argue that a formal piece is needed at the beginning of the third act to balance what Siegfried and Odile do at the end, and that this one presages Siegfried’s faithlessness.

One area for future consideration might be the last scene. It begins with Siegfried’s entrance, in A major, then drops into A minor for Rothbart’s entrance (there’s the ambivalence again). But here, at the big B-minor climax, Siegfried holds Odette aloft and Rothbart dies (they used to chase Rothbart through a double line of swans, a nice touch that’s gone); this goes against the music, since B minor is the key of the swans’ enchantment. Some 60 bars later, when Odette and Siegfried throw themselves into the lake, the music breaks through to B major and Rothbart’s tower crumbles; that’s when the spell is broken, and that’s when Rothbart should die.

No apology is needed for John Conklin’s set, with its huge broken portals in the first act and its heavy burgundy-and-gold décor in the third depicting a royal world where love doesn’t take flight. Or for Jonathan McPhee’s Boston Ballet Orchestra, which is full-bodied and even a little trashy (this is Tchaikovsky, after all); particularly felicitous are concertmaster Michael Rosenbloom in the White Swan pas de deux, acting principal trumpet Dana Oakes in the Neapolitan dance, and harpist Cynthia Price-Glynn at the beginning of act four. I’m still not happy about the longstanding 30-bar cut near the end of the first-act waltz; it saves 25 seconds while destroying Tchaikovsky’s structural and harmonic resolution. The first-act polonaise, on the other hand, has pace and point, and the third-act mazurka, similarly played, puts to shame the Kirov Ballet’s 2002 New York performance, which had only pace.

The dancers the company sent out opening weekend had just about everything. Thursday night, Larissa Ponomarenko and Yury Yanowsky were an intriguingly semi-matched pair. Without the jester to play off, Yanowsky practically disappeared in the first act, though he surfaced at the end to reveal genuine anguish in the extensions of his solo before thudding into the ungainly arabesque landings of Siegfried’s tours-jetés. In the second and fourth acts, he made partnering Ponomarenko’s Odette look easy, but some aspects of his solos were labored, and in his carriage he seemed to shrink rather than expand. Ponomarenko substituted intelligence for the hysteria that can make Odettes generic; hers seemed already to have seen too many princes fail. She filled out McPhee’s languid second-act adagios with weary but not cynical nuances of phrasing, then turned ferocious for the entrechat/relevé/passé sequence that ends her solo. On stage, at least, she’s too introverted to be a natural Odile, but this time out she was more bodacious and less brittle than in 1994 or 1998. Her 32 (close enough) fouettés eschewed doubles and stayed right on the beat.

Friday night, Nelson Madrigal and Lorna Feijóo (husband and wife in real life) raised the temperature in an already warm Wang. Madrigal is not a virtuoso, and his technique lets him down at times, but he compensates with the expressiveness of his acting. Performing in the pas de trois Thursday, he made a point of looking over at Yanowsky’s Siegfried and bringing the prince back into the scene. His own Siegfried on Friday was Rhodes Scholar material, an athlete, one of the boys, but also a poet. He was the most engaged of the company’s Siegfrieds with the cookie-cutter princesses, partnering them with a wry smile but an open mind. Feijóo was a sensuous, dramatic, quicksilver Odette, with both volume and speed, and a breathtaking change of pace in her solo. Her Odile was teasingly assured, and though her fouettés weren’t quite as controlled as Ponomarenko’s, she capped off her third act with a passage of backward hops on pointe that she did faster than you can say "Alicia Alonso" (in Cuba, this is substituted for Odile’s diagonal run forward), beginning with her hands crossed in front of her, in the "no sex till we’re married" position, and ending by flinging them in the air. It almost looked as if she were making it up on the spot.

Saturday afternoon, Sarah Lamb, who’ll be a soloist with the Royal Ballet next year, had her first Odette/Odile. She was a younger Odette than either Ponomarenko or Feijóo, more fluttery, a little more held back, as if her Siegfried, Pavel Gurevich, were the first man she’d seen. She has superb upper-body articulation, and her mime was exceptionally clear. Her Odile was slinky and seductive, and she made expressive eye contact not just with Gurevich but with Viktor Plotnikov as her Rothbart. If she started her fouettés (lots of doubles) a little quickly and lost focus at the end, it was still an excellent debut. Gurevich was the most imperious Siegfried, receiving his birthday toast from the pas de trois’s Christopher Budzynski as if the man were a total stranger and, in the third act, scarcely deigning to look at the expectant princesses as he trotted past. He has a long, elegant line, not as stretched out as Yanowsky’s at the end of the first act, but he made a better impression in the tours-jetés by jettisoning the arabesque landing of the last two, and in the second act, when Lamb was chaîné-turning away from him, he bent his knees and wrapped himself around her. He’s not an explosive dancer, but he does what he does well.

Sunday afternoon, Romi Beppu also made her debut. Her Odette was all animal instinct, delicate, delineated, with particularly articulate hands, and tantalizingly slow pirouettes at the end of the White Swan pas de deux; she didn’t show much variety of facial expression but compensated with the bird-like tilt of her head. Her Odile was soft but sexy, a come-on from the moment she entered, all winks and smiles and offers that were immediately withdrawn; she ran out of gas in her fouettés, but no matter. Mindaugas Bauzys matches her prominent cheekbones, and otherwise his craggy face sets off her round one; what’s more, he hardly took his eyes off her. His Siegfried was a little withdrawn, however, and though he managed the tour-jeté arabesque landings with no little grace, his third-act variations were more satisfying than overwhelming.

It’s a mark of Boston Ballet’s current strength that the company could in one weekend field not only four principal couples but different combinations for the pas de trois, pas de cinq, and third-act ethnic dances in almost every performance. Sabi Varga’s second-act entrance as Rothbart Friday evening was a manège of awesome speed and power, but the part still seems underwritten if, as Nissinen has suggested, Rothbart is to be Siegfried’s dark alter ego. Also Friday evening, Viktor Plotnikov was a fussbudget Wolfgang who helped keep Madrigal’s Siegfried engaged. Misa Kuranaga brought an unusual lightness and delicacy of phrasing to the pas de trois and the Neapolitan dance (rechoreographed by Nissinen sans tambourines); Barbora Kohoutková brought her usual Old World nuance and savoir faire to the pas de trois and the csárdás. Married couple Christopher Budzynski and Alexandra Kochis gave the Neapolitan dance a lived-in playfulness; Budzinski and Joel Prouty gave an easy power to the pas de trois; Roman Rykine brought deep knee bends to the csárdás. Former principal Laura Young and former soloist Jennifer Glaze alternated as the queen mother; it was also a pleasure to spot former company corps member Karla Kovatch guesting among the swans.

Issue Date: May 21 - 27, 2004
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