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Flash Review, 2-23: The Heart of the Matter
From the Lake of the Swans to the Stream of the Subconscious
By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2007 Alicia Chesser
TULSA, Oklahoma -- Tulsa Ballet artistic director Marcello Angelini is full of ideas. Because he believes that the classics remain important, he continues to bring "Giselle," "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," "La Sylphide," and the like to the public here. At the same time, he is convinced that in order to speak to contemporary dancegoers, these ballets need fresh perspectives. He wants to make them speak to us in the language we speak, to allow an audience to identify with the story and the characters in a personal way, without sacrificing the challenges (both physical and emotional) of classical ballet. As such, he often "internalizes" their librettos and reworks their choreography, so that instead of having to dig significance out of the conventional good guys/bad guys/fairies telling, we can simply put ourselves in the place of the main character and accompany him on an inner journey. In the case of Angelini's version of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," seen February 9 and 11 at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, that journey is Prince Siegfried's. The epic tale of the Prince and the evil Rothbart and the Swan Queen is transformed into the story of a man working his way toward understanding love.
Rothbart takes the part of Siegfried's subconscious, while Odette and Odile represent ideal love and temptation (neither of which, of course, adds up to real love). At the ballet's conclusion, Siegfried finds true happiness with just... a woman, in a flowing white tunic, neither queen nor temptress, having realized (in breaking his vow to Odette in Act 3) that there is both light and darkness in all of us. As the program puts it, "Odette is transformed from a vision of impossible perfection to the woman of his dreams, his ideal love. By accepting the dark side of life while rejoicing in the good, Siegfried [sees his] dream... come true." It's an interesting twist on the familiar libretto, intended to make a fairy tale mean something for us, the presumption being that in the conventional telling the meaning is obscured by, well, conventions. (I am not creative enough to gain much from putting myself in the place of a character unless that character is very rich and well-defined; I need something more to sink my imagination into than a somewhat abstract 'man and his subconscious,' and I love the black-and-white-ness, the good-and-bad-ness, of these big classics for that reason. But what is a new production supposed to be if not something that challenges you?) In addition to reworking the libretto, Angelini has also made the choreography his own. Aside from the "core" Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov elements of the ballet -- the Act 1 pas de trois (reworked here into a pas de quatre), the "white" Act 2, and the Black Swan pas de deux -- all the choreography is his. However much I might pine for the more traditional version, Angelini's take on "Swan Lake" is carefully thought-out and meticulously realized, a successful re-imagining of what the Prince and the Swan might say to us.
The ballet begins with a dream in which Siegfried imagines his true love. Rothbart appears (again, from the program notes: "representing the inner conflicts between the conscious life and the unconscious mind of Siegfried") as Siegfried dances with his dream partner. Rothbart turns the woman into a swan, which symbolizes "the impossibility of Siegfried to be in love." From there we visit Siegfried's 21st birthday party, at which his mother admonishes him to choose a bride sooner rather than later (not to mention to stop drinking so much!) and presents him with a crossbow as a gift. Siegfried wanders to the nearby lake, where Rothbart approaches, mirroring Siegfried at every step, placing the crossbow center stage, and introducing Odette, his half-woman, half-swan creation.
Danced by the 20-year-old Venezuelan Karina Gonzalez in her first go at this ballet, Odette is a tender, gentle creature -- but not without spirit. In rehearsal Gonzalez had the benefit of one-on-one coaching by former Tulsa Ballet principal dancer and current ballet mistress Daniela Buson, who with Angelini danced over 85 performances of "Swan Lake" in several different versions. There was a lot of Buson in Gonzalez's performances: her passion, her emotional richness, and her un-show-offy but rock-solid technique were all evident in the young dancer's interpretation. As is not uncommon in a first Odette/Odile, nerves made Gonzalez's opening night performance somewhat opaque and reserved (though she nailed every step). I'm delighted to have had the chance to see her again on Sunday afternoon, because it was then that she showed what she's really capable of. Her performance Sunday was explosive, intense, fearless, and alive, her Odette both regal and vulnerable, her Odile glittering and gleeful in her seduction of Siegfried (I loved the way she reveled in pulling her hand out of Siegfried's reach). Gonzalez, extremely slim and petite, has tons of power in her turns and a wide-open port de bras. One can see how hard she's worked to soften the movement of her arms and hands and to strengthen her flexible torso. Her huge, commanding attitude comes in rather handy in a ballet in which that position appears repeatedly; Gonzalez can hit one and hold it bigger than big for many seconds. She approached her 32 fouettes with classroom straightforwardness on opening night, but by Sunday she was throwing in doubles at top speed, nailing a triple attitude turn, and hitting balances worthy of Cynthia Gregory. Her Odette was richer, too, controlled and wildly ardent at the same time. One suspects she was dancing like this in rehearsals all along, but the stage is so very different from the studio! It was thrilling to see her gain such authority onstage in such a demanding role in two short days.
Alfonso Martin's Siegfried combined a gorgeous, smooth carriage and a respectful demeanor with boyish delight. So joyously smitten was he with the Swan Queen that even the tragic moments (Odette's disappearance, his realization that he had broken his vow to her) were charged with ardor, which I suspect is how Angelini intended it, since what Siegfried seeks after all is love, not knowing what shape it might take. I cannot speak highly enough of the supple beauty of Martin's leaps and turns, the masculine yet gentle bearing with which he approaches every moment as the Prince.
The role of Rothbart, Siegfried's unconscious/alter ego, was created for Ma Cong at the ballet's premiere in 1998. It's perfect for Cong: dramatic, sexy, and filled to the brim with eye-popping twisty leaps. With his lithe frame, punchy ballon, and theatrical sensibility, he brings exceptional energy and power to this complex role. I was just as impressed, however, with Ricardo Graziano's interpretation on Sunday afternoon. Graziano's Rothbart was elegance personified: nothing showy, nothing wild, just subtle menace, authority, and lines as rich as port wine (and the black velveteen tights were luscious, if it's not too much to say so, on both dancers).
The supporting cast, as always with Tulsa Ballet, was well-rehearsed and up to every challenge. In the Act 1 Pas de Quatre, Alexandra Bergman, Ashley Blade-Martin, Michael Eaton, and Wang Yi did wonders in sustained movement at a slow tempo; on Sunday, Mugen Kazama (in for Yi) had remarkable energy. The swans in Act 2 -- a mere 16 dancers filling the stage as if they were twice that number -- were a marvel of unity; their "flocking" movements and "going under the door" arms in the diagonal hops in arabesque belied the careful attention to detail, especially in port de bras, that defines Tulsa Ballet corps work. I have two nitpicky notes. First, the men tend to exhibit what my beloved teacher and Tulsa Ballet co-founder Moscelyne Larkin used to call "pancake hands." Second, many of the dancers need work on preparations and transitional steps; there were quite a lot of little hops and adjustments before unsupported pirouettes and big jumps. In general, though, the corps was a marvel of cohesion, and the soloists -- in particular the delectably musical Kate Oderkirk as a lead swan in Act 2 -- showed confidence and grace.
I was tremendously impressed with the supplemental choreography Angelini provided -- more than supplemental, in fact, given that he choreographed more than half of this production. Indeed, so well has he attended to the Petipa/Ivanov choreography that at times it was difficult to distinguish what was his from what was theirs. The dances in Act 3 -- Siegfried's birthday celebration -- were especially impressive, beginning with a rousing Mazurka for ten dancers, followed by a sprightly, funny, hugely energetic Neapolitan dance (complete with tambourines) for Serena Chu and an adorably smitten Alberto Montesso, then a dark, fiery, sensual Spanish dance for Oderkirk, Rene Olivier, Eaton, and Graziano. (Remembering the hot-hot-hot red-and-black lace dresses the Spanish dancers wore reminds me to mention that the majestic costumes and sets were provided by Milwaukee Ballet.)
In general, Sunday's performance was superior to Friday's, despite the stellar dancing done by Yi and Cong on Friday. The opening night performance was reserved, almost enervated; it was as though a screen had dropped over the stage, making everything seem small, shadowed, and far away. By Sunday the company had fully risen to the demands of the ballet and to its own capabilities, the dancers sinking their jumps deep into the stage on landing, bringing their eyes and faces into their dancing, letting energy flow all the way to the tips of their fingers. They found the thrill of the ballet, its special energy that's at once ethereal and grounded -- energy Angelini's libretto makes the most of in its exploration of the radiant idealism and deep darkness present in the human heart.
One reason for the odd "lightweight" feeling on Friday was the excruciatingly slow tempi in Tchaikovsky's score from the usually grand Tulsa Symphony Orchestra (especially in Act 2), which exacerbated the already tentative feeling onstage. It was as if the conductor, Tulsa Ballet music director Nathan Fifield, wanted to go for a ghostly, attenuated sensibility; while I can appreciate that desire, I think it's really up to the dancers to make that sensibility happen. Lack of momentum in the orchestra only drags things down onstage. On February 11, the issues of tempo had been addressed and there was significantly more energy from the pit (though out-of-tune strings plagued the performance). To be fair, Fifield is still very new to the job, having come to Tulsa from Houston Ballet, where he was a staff conductor and company pianist (a job he's also filled at New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre). As for the orchestra itself, to be fair again, "Swan Lake" is not exactly an easy score to play. Their performance on Sunday showed what a marvelous, hard-working ensemble the TSO really is, and what a gift to the arts in this city.
Tulsa Ballet's final program of this Golden Anniversary season, to be presented March 30 through April 1, features Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs," Robert North's "Troy Game," and the US premiere of Nacho Duato's "Por Vos Muero." Stay tuned!