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Flash Review 2, 10-17: A 'Swan' to Swoon for
Ek & Cullberg Unify Odette & Odile

By Corinne Imberski
Copyright 2002 Corinne Imberski

ANN ARBOR -- Combining the inimitable choreography of Mats Ek and the stunning perfomances of the Cullberg Ballet (in its Ann Arbor debut), "Swan Lake" became a spectacular evening of dance at the Power Center of Performing Arts on October 8. Ek's 1987 version can certainly stand on its own tremendous strength and originality, but I don't believe that Ek wants us to forget the Petipa/Ivanov original, and if one has seen the traditional version, it seems impossible to not make connections between the two. The two versions have similar story arcs and both require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief; however, Ek's version involves a deeper psychological core which seems more closely related to a Shakespearean drama than to the fairy tale of Petipa/Ivanov.

The sparse sets by Marie-Louise Ekman prove more provocative than any elaborate ballroom set. (What exactly is that phallic, black and white set piece that sits downstage and resembles a huge spiraling dollop of shaving cream?) Mats Ek's choreography is also anything but simple. It combines the explosive jumps, turns, and extended lines of classical ballet with wonderfully quirky and earthy movements, and subtle gestures for the head and arms. All of the Cullberg Ballet dancers are amazingly adept at incorporating all of the movement qualities of Ek's choreography. Because the choreography is so unique and appropriate for his telling of the "Swan Lake" story and because the movement is so convincingly danced, the dramatic elements of the story become very authentic and engaging. The performers let their emotions tumble out, but they also keep just enough below the surface, allowing them to propel themselves forward in space and in the story.

Christopher Akril's Prince presents as a "normal" 21- year-old -- energetic, restless, confused, and a bit awkward. He has a repeating movement theme of a long, deep lunge with reaching arms followed by hesitant, tiny steps with his shoulders pulled up to his ears. He seems to scream, "I want, I want, I want!", at the same time acknowledging that he isn't quite sure what it is that he is after. In the first act we are introduced to the people who have helped shape his life: his mother, the passionate, domineering, yet loving Queen (a wonderfully wicked Caroline Geiger); three jesters of contagiously good cheer and abundant energy; and his mother's lover (in a scene which provides some of the most innovative partnering sequences). We are also introduced to the woman who the Queen has picked out to be her son's wife, referred to as the "birthday present." We are led to believe that this woman is a version of the Queen herself, but she lacks all of the Queen's passion and confidence. The Prince does not find himself attracted to her.

Act II takes place in the dream world of the Prince. The swans make a slinky entrance as they spill out onto the stage from under the back curtain. The powerful and slightly erotic movements of the swans excite the Prince and he falls for one of them, Odette. Johanna Lindh's Odette captures both the beauty of the romantic swan image and its true animal nature, with a long arabesque line that is capped with a blunt, flexed foot. The Prince awakens from his dream with the thought that he finally knows what he wants.

With new resolve, the Prince takes off in search of his love. Act III takes us on a trip to three countries: Russia, Israel, and Spain. Unlike the divertissements of the Petipa/Ivanov version, these segments help further the character development of the Prince. With each country, he learns about how men and women interact. He also meets Odile, a temperamental, aggressive, but nonetheless appealing woman. Odile also finds the Prince attractive, and they make their first awkward attempts at connection. One of the most touching moments is when they stand far apart and Odile performs a series of deep squats with the Prince repeating after her. The squats are at once playful and sexual and the pair warm up to each other. But Rothbart, the old man and Odile's father, takes Odile away from the Prince.

In Act IV, the Prince is reunited with his first love, Odette, and both are overjoyed at the reunion. But the awkwardness of young love is seen again. We are not given perfectly supported penches and swooning back bends, but hesitant touching combined with lustful fumblings. The pair exits the stage, married, with the last tremulous chords of Tchaikovsky's music and Rothbart's laughing. The coda gives us a look of life after marriage: The Prince is alone onstage, but out comes Odile from under the back curtain. She repeats a movement theme of Odette's, and the Prince realizes that life is isn't going to be that simple. With a suggestive look over her shoulder, Odette/Odile summons the Prince and he walks to meet her. Odette and Odile are part of the same person, black and white -- all twisted together to create a realistic and honest representation of a woman.

Corinne Imberski is a Michigan-based dancer, teacher, and choreographer.

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