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Flash Review 2, 4-3: McKenzie's "Swan Lake"
ABT's New "Swan Lake" Takes Off

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2000 Tara Zahra

DETROIT--What can be said about "Swan Lake" that hasn't been said before? And what can be done with "Swan Lake" that hasn't been done before? While I am not sure that I can say anything original, or that Kevin McKenzie has done anything original with American Ballet Theatre's new production, seen Saturday at the Detroit Metro Opera House, that takes nothing from this "Swan Lake," which succeeds in amplifying all of the expected elements to the highest level of perfection: virtuosic principal dancers, flawless corps work, an opulent spectacle, moments of true emotional release, and tradition, tradition, tradition.

Because this ballet is above all about its ballerina, I should say right out that Paloma Herrera was technically and artistically brilliant as Odette/Odile. Herrera's Odette was decadent, genuinely responsive to the subtleties of the languid violins in both the 2nd and 4th Acts. Her turns and jumps lingered like chocolate on your tongue, and were superbly accented by daring plunges into penchee, the subtle flickering and shivering of a trembling swan, and absolutely flawless technical precision. Her Odile seemed more childishly mischievous than evil, as if she shared a fun joke on the prince with the audience, but I am not sure how to evaluate a dancer's portrayal of a character that is so thoroughly grounded in the values of the 19th century. How do you dance a character that we are supposed to hate because she wears black, is aggressive and confident, and plays hard to get (in comparison to Odile's supposedly virtuous coyness and modesty)? Because she is confident with her sexuality? In some ways I preferred Herrera's rendition of Odile as a mischievous and playful innocent than one which would truly demonize such a character, because personally I would rather be friends with an Odile than an Odette. At least we also are signaled that von Rothbart is bad news through his Type-A seductiveness and charm (and because he wears thigh-high purple suede boots). But in any event, at some point I had to stop thinking about this and just enjoy the technical virtuosity displayed by Herrera, Jose Manual Carreno as Siegfried, and Maxim Belotserkovsky as von Rothbart. In particular, they gave us beautiful and confident balances--something I have rarely seen performed by male dancers.

The production's incredibly rich and elaborate sets and costumes by Zack Brown luxuriously do everything in their power to confirm the audience's expectations that they are enjoying the very epitome of "high culture." The prologue's ever happy Germanic peasants and the royal court are costumed in complimentary Easter Egg pastels, and perform a gorgeous circular maypole dance which was full of confident leaps and turns. The breezy Pas de Trois was the highlight of the first act, and it was a great pleasure to see Gillian Murphy, Michele Wiles, and Marcelo Gomes return for an encore of sorts in the third act.

Another highlight of the production was the corps' partnering, which was superb overall (except for perhaps the princess dance in the third act, in which one couple always seemed a few beats behind). The usual problem of too much wandering around in the woods at the end of the first act and beginning of the second was alleviated somewhat by the scenery change to an absolutely haunting and enchanting forest (think Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods) and lake scene. In the second act, the cygnets' variation and the lead swans were both stunning in their renditions of the classic Petipa/Ivanov choreography, as was the corps. For those who know the ballet well, it is hard to contain your excitement as the music builds to the corps' famous criss-crossing entrance. Even though the steps are not technically overwhelming, there is something spectacular about this familiar sequence, and American Ballet Theatre does it better than any other company I have seen. The seriousness of the scene was, however, somewhat disturbed by von Rothbart's poorly designed costume, which made him look a little too much like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

The character dances of the third act were also amusing diversions and executed with subtle flair and spirit. The third act in general seemed to be well (and by that I mean quickly) paced. Of course, I think it is important to see these dances for what they were: the essentializing expressions of European nationalism circa 1895, which attempted to invent a history and a tradition for "nations" such as Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Spain, which either didn't exist at all as states at the time, or were incredibly new and far from unified in culture or even language, let alone in nationalist folk dances. This invention was typically accomplished by glorifying the Volk or peasantry as the "authentic" embodiment of the nation, and thus glorifying their "authentic" dances and costumes, which the peasants themselves more often than not had to pick up from bourgeois nationalists. But I guess it was all a good thing for ballet lovers (even if devastating for the rest of the world once WW1 came around), because otherwise we wouldn't have the second act of "The Nutcracker," the third act of "Swan Lake," nor any number of other classical divertissements.

In any event, the ballet comes to its tragic and incredibly moving end in the fourth act, which was once again beautifully executed by the ABT corps as well as Herrera and Carreno. It's hard not to start thinking about all the most important and tragic things in life in the final moments of this ballet. You are finally truly able to forget for a moment that you are watching these unreal, sculpted bodies perform a superhuman spectacle, and feel something--to relate to the characters and their emotions. I wasn't sure about the ballet's attempt at a pseudo-happy ending ("The lovers are reunited in the afterlife," says the program), but I guess that's for each individual to decide.

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