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Flash Review Journal, 12-17: Classics
Von Krahl Re-envisions "Swan Lake"; Ailey Re-mounts McKayle's 'Rainbow'

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

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NEW YORK -- One of the latest teams to take a seemingly irresistible revisionist crack at Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," usually seen in the version choreographed in 1895 by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, is the Von Krahl Theater, based in Tallinn, Estonia. The group's artistic director, Peeter Jalakas, created this version with Moscow choreographer Sasha Pepelyaev. Seen at Dance Theater Workshop this past Thursday as part of Central Station, the festival of dance from Eastern Europe, Von Krahl's production, "The Swan Lake," is a piece of densely packed entertainment using inventive physical and theatrical daring to haul the work's freighted baggage to the present moment.

While several elements from the original ballet were carried forward, notably the Tchaikovsky score and the characters of Odette/Odile, the rest pretty much hit the scrap pile. Sergei Zagny reworked the score to include the familiar recognizable segments and arranged it for a small orchestra. The result is completely familiar yet folksy, sounding as if a fiddle played the violin part. Other important, related remnants are intangible: the work's symbolism of imperial and communist power; ballet as the pinnacle of physical and artistic achievement... a constant reassurance of general human superiority.

A cast of five actors and six dancers performed "The Swan Lake." The grey transparent gauze curtain fell, revealing stacked 55 gallon metal drums (or the metric equivalent), out of which dropped swan symbols: a feather, pillows and a quilt, ostensibly downfilled. Scaffolding flanked stage right and left; atop which the dancers sat on suspended chairs with buckets over their heads. They descended in soaring spirals by clinging to a moveable pole whose rubber tip was planted centerstage, allowing it to rotate in big circles. The wonderful effect was akin to watching a trapeze artist at the circus.

The meaty chunks of Pepelyaev's movement provided a foundation for the work -- solid, sensible, and grounded -- in contrast to the actors' roles. The dancers, wearing Reet Ulfsak's prim grey dresses, crossed the stage's diagonal in smooth lunging chassees and direction shifts, floating their arms shoulder high, bent in half. They lay on their sides arching their backs; or flipped their feet from side to side when prostrate. Later, their dances gained a kinetic intensity as well as emotional import. In contrast, the characters played by actors seemed rudderless. The three men were costumed as different figures in power -- a soldier, a businessman, an accountant. The black-clad Odile character (Tiina Tauraite) gave orders or cried buckets of tears. The Odette would-be, in white, (Liina Vahtrik) appeared eager to please, if vapid.

The use of common items as props showed great inventiveness. The performers used the barrels as percussion instruments and stepladders, or rolled across the stage while lying inside them, often crashing like bumper cars. The men donned them over their doubled-over bodies so only their feet showed, like cartoon figures. Smaller buckets were put to multiple uses as well -- a performer wore one like a giant shoe, spinning freely on its angled fulcrum; another plunged his bent limbs into four of them, his torso suspended between points. Film clips of traditional "Swan Lake" performances, industrial machinery, and groups of people exercising and doing gymnastics were projected onto bedding: sheets hung on a line and reeled offstage like laundry, and images of heads moving across stage were projected onto small pillows carried by the dancers.

The movement, beyond the pure dance sections, also showed a terrific resourcefulness. Two men leveraged their weight off of a third to make a human see-saw; the men plugged their feet through Vahtrik's limbs and walked her forward like a giant snowshoe. These types of sequences formed a bridge between the theatrical phrases of actions and gestures and the gorgeous pure dance sections. The drama heightened as the work progressed, moving through a fierce duet danced by Tatiana Gordeeva and Daria Buzovkina (both assistant choreographers), and a wrenching solo performed by a partially-clad Olga Tsetkova, behind whom the other dancers stood on barrels wearing sheets as long, trailing skirts like caryatids; these three wound up wearing black and white satin dresses. Erik Laur made an acrobatic loop around the stage, leaping onto the rims of overturned barrels, riding each one as it fell forward. The men stripped off their clothes, stepped behind a scrim, and, through the use of video, appeared to fly off as swans. The video projections had a coarse quality which felt appropriate, and every film element worked to good effect. By the end, this "Swan Lake" proved exhausting but completely exhilarating, even with no prince in sight.

Additional cast members were Triin Lilleorg, Kart Tonisson, Anna-Liisa Lepasepp, Juhan Ulfsak, and Taavi Eelmaa.

This season, Alvin Ailey Amercian Dance Theater has wisely re-mounted Donald McKayle's 1959 gem, "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," seen at City Center Saturday, and last performed by the Ailey six years ago. The work, about men on a chain gang who dream of loved ones and freedom, is a vehicle for strong male dancers, full of bold geometry and sultry dramatics. In this new production, the traditional chain gang songs (arranged by Robert DeCormier and Milton Okun, directed by Tania Leon) were performed by a chorus and solo vocalist Corey Glover (of the band Living Color), who lent a contemporary air. And Ailey's dancers gave it a powerful rendering with nuanced acting.

Although on a chain gang, the men performed the strident moves with a life-or-death urgency and not resignation. They entered in a line, flinging their heads to the side and then whipping in half at the waist, and opened and closed their breastbones to the sky, arms alternately curving upward and downward. Lusher movements, as in floating arabesque releves, or air-scooping contractions, softened the harsh atmosphere. The men usually moved in formation or in turn, except when one or another (Matthew Rushing as the boy and Glenn A. Sims as the man) broke off to enact dreams of a beloved mother or sweetheart, both danced by Renee Robinson. Sims, always a powerful presence on stage, spun in attitude with his back flat and arms clasped in angry fists overhead. A break for freedom cleaved the gang into groups of twos and threes. They exploded in layouts, palms spread wide, and wove backward and forward in surges, until a pair escaped and ran offstage, where shots rang out -- a dramatic ending to a solidly-crafted rendition.

Additional dancers were Guillermo Asca, Jeffrey Gerodias, Vernard J. Gilmore, Clifton Brown, and Abrud-Rahim Jackson. The beating-sun lighting was designed by Chenault Spence.

Editor's Note: The Central Station festival concludes this weekend, December 18 - 20, at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, with Russia's Daria Buzovkina and Estonia's United Dancers of Zuga. To read a DI review of Daria Buzovkina, please click here. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs at City Center through January 4, reprising Donald McKayle's "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" Sunday afternoon and Friday, December 26, to recorded music.

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