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Flash Review 2, 6-11: New Take on the Old 'Lake'
Wheeldon Crafts a 'Swan' Post-modernists Can Love

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus
Photography copyright 2004 Rosalie O'Connor

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PHILADELPHIA -- Not having seen all the zillion earlier versions of this Russian classic set to Tchaikovsky's famed score, I was pleased to be so won over at the June 4 premiere of the Pennsylvania Ballet's $1 million production of "Swan Lake." Staged by Christopher Wheeldon after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, the ballet runs through June 13 at the Academy of Music. Wheeldon creates visual complexity by feathering traditional steps into dynamic spatial configurations, heightening the effect with dazzling stagecraft and a deft infusion of sinister darkness.

Set in the late 19th-century milieu of the Paris Opera Ballet of Degas, this "Swan Lake" is framed by a conceit whereby dancers in rehearsal meld into the familiar story ballet and back again. The scenes hover between an airy rehearsal studio with its massive antique mirror and the roiling lake of a dream.

Riolama Lorenzo as Odette-Odile and the Pennsylvania Ballet corps in "Swan Lake," staged by Christopher Wheeldon after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, to Tchaikovsky's score. Design by Adrianne Lobel. Rosalie O'Connor photo copyright 2004 Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

In cinched bodices and flouncy knee-length tutus, dancers first enter in a series of Degas freeze frames, delicately adjusting a slipper here, twisting hair into a topknot there. At the edge of the backstage scene are their admirers, gentlemen in dark cutaways and top hats, of whom the ominous Von Rothbart (for the premiere, Alexei Charov) is one. Von Rothbart's skulking form appears throughout, swirling his voluminous cape or crouched in shadow as the ballet within the ballet unfolds.

Wheeldon sets his stage cheerfully reeling with ever-shifting radial symmetries, concentric circles and off-center floor patterns in Act One's group dances. While visually organized, the effect feels as unpredictable as any radical contemporary work. A centerpiece trio features the particularly sprightly Jermel Johnson, an apprentice at the Ballet.

The walls of Adrianne Lobel's set, rendered suddenly transparent by Natasha Katz's lighting, and the flying swans and watery background of James Buckhouse's visual effects create a miasmic disorientation as studio gives way to lakeside dream world. Swans, seen first in shadow, enter in crisscrossing layers. Siegfried's meeting with Odette, the white Swan Queen, finds her reticent, with an extreme wildness in her birdlike quivering and head twists. Lovers of the classic will be pleased with the faithful rendition of the Cygnet quartet. The four baby swans link arms to execute their breathlessly brisk footwork, heads tipping as though on immature necks. The Act II pas de deux slows time through its luxuriant arches and extensions. Riolama Lorenzo, as Odette, exudes a settled sensuality and the noble Zachary Hench as Siegfried ably plays into the rapturous enchantment.

Riolama Lorenzo, Zachary Hench, and the Pennsylvania Ballet corps in "Swan Lake," staged by Christopher Wheeldon after Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, to Tchaikovsky's score. Design by Adrianne Lobel. Rosalie O'Connor photo copyright 2004 Rosalie O'Connor and courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

Champions of innovation will enjoy Wheeldon's play on the third act character dances, including a can-can atop tables straight out of Lautrec. It's a hoot!

Lorenzo seems capable of doing her requisite fouettes forever as Odille, the classically crisp Black Swan. Is this where the term "star turn" comes from?

Here the mirror, turned smoky and amber, becomes a window on the despondent Odette as Von Rothbart's substitution of dark for light swan and Siegfried's subsequent duplicity is revealed.

In the final act, before an open expanse of churning water, Von Rothbart lurks everywhere, like the Phantom of the Opera. Siegfried and Odette dance with palpable tenderness. She is drawn back and away from him, and the ending, as we return to the studio world, remains ambiguous, with several possible interpretations.

Wheeldon spurs this company on to eminently fine dancing. Rather than being in any way melodramatic or pat, his rendition of "Swan Lake" is multi-layered and dynamic theater. It's an inspired re-setting that even a post-modernist can love.


Lisa Kraus, longtime member of New York's downtown dance community, danced with the Trisha Brown Company and later taught at the experimental European Dance Development Center. Her chronicle of teaching Trisha Brown's "Glacial Decoy" to the Paris Opera Ballet appears in the Contact Quarterly summer/fall 2004 issue.

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