Sunday, January 15, 2012

From Russia with Love: Swan Lake

While many have speculated whether the success of the movie Black Swan would contribute to more spectators of the Swan Lake ballet, I have neither seen nor particularly wish to see Black Swan. I have just wanted to see Swan Lake for some time now, so I was intrigued when I saw The State Theatre would be live broadcasting a production of the Swan Lake from The Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, Russia. A friend and I decided to check out this performance, with this far more friendly commuting option!

Very loosely, here’s the basic plot: Swan Lake opens with a birthday celebration for Prince Siegfried. Later that evening, the prince stumbles onto an enchanted lake. It appears to be populated with swans, but they are really young woman who are under a spell and only become their true selves at night. The prince spies Odette (the “white swan”), the most beautiful of these women, and immediately falls in love with her. The next day the queen presents various princesses from other countries to the prince, hoping he’ll pick a bride amongst them, but Siegfried is loyal to Odette. However, that’s when the evil Rothbart appears with his daughter Odile (the “black swan”) who looks remarkably like Odette and tricks the prince into believing that she is indeed Odette. From here, different productions diverge on the storyline so I won’t provide any more details or give away any spoilers.

The story of Swan Lake, like most fairy tales, is a bit silly. (If you don’t know this about me already, I’ll note for the record that I am not much of a fan of fairy tales). But the story is somewhat secondary here - the plot is just some weak glue to hold together a bunch of otherwise unrelated dance sequences. While many critics of musicals charge that the songs are unnecessary, they generally do help to further the plot, even if they make it more long drawn out and flowery. Here, however, many of the dance sequences do nothing to further the story along. Sure, it makes sense for Odette and Siegfried to have a clingy romantic dance together to indicate that they are attracted to one another. But everyone else in the story has their moment of dance also, even when they don’t seem to say anything more about the story. The black swans, the white swans, the courtiers, the prospective brides and their attendants, and so on, all have long dances to execute that don’t push the action forward. This is not a criticism of the ballet; this is just a statement. If you like strong plots, you will probably not like this ballet (and perhaps not any others). If you like to see beautiful dancers dancing beautiful, you will more than likely enjoy seeing this ballet performed.

Before I go into specifics about this particular production we saw, I should note that I’m treading into unknown waters here. Unlike art or theater, where I feel I have at least some background to bring to any critique or appreciation of a particular work, I have hardly any knowledge about ballet. I’ve only seen two other full ballet productions – The Nutcracker at a local dance studio and The Swineherd at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I have very little awareness of what kind of training and work goes into a great ballet performance, let alone specific knowledge of technique. So, short of a dancer falling flat on his or her face, I’d be completely unaware of a performer’s flub. Also, because I am unaware of what is a more difficult move comparatively, I am awed by flashy, quick moves – which may or may not be the most difficult ones if you were to ask the ballet dancers.

That brings me to my one and only criticism of this production of Swan Lake – I was not overly impressed by the performance of the prince. For instance, he often appeared to be playing second fiddle to Odette/Odile. No doubt there’s tons of physical effort and talent on both parties’ parts whenever a lift is involved, but it looks far more difficult and interesting to the viewer to see a ballerina balancing on one leg mid-air than it does to see the man just holding her there. Again, this may be an issue with me not knowing what are the more complex steps, but I found the court jester to be a far more entertaining dancer to watch. His leaps, jumps, and quick successive pirouettes looked far more difficult and, as I said, more interesting to the spectator than anything from the prince. Indeed, I found the jester to be more impressive than either of the nominal male leads, although at least with Rothbart I got the impression that this was a very talented performer but the role did not call for an excess of stunning moves. That being said, overall I was mesmerized by the dancers and their skill. The visual feast is further spread with lavish scenery and costumes. I particularly liked the costumes for the white swans – basically the standard leotard and tutu in white but with a soft, fluffiness to them that really evoked the image of a swan’s down. A modest feathered headdress completed the look. And, the music, originally composed by Tchaikovsky, is absolutely stunning and fits perfectly with each and every dance step.

Watching the ballet on the big screen was an interesting experience and, as I mentioned somewhat flippantly earlier, is a good way to see a ballet you would not otherwise be able to see due to geographic distance. Another plus to see the ballet this way was that you could very clearly see the performers up close. Even if you were stuck in a back row, you’d still be able to see the expressions on the dancers’ faces. There were also a few behind the scenes moments, such as when we could see the orchestra in the pit warming up for an act or when the dancer performing as Rothbart was interviewed during the intermission. The only down side with this way of seeing the ballet was that you saw only what the videographer allowed you to see. There was a good mix of shots of the whole troupe versus panning into a lead character, but it’s different than being able to take in the stage in its entirety and choosing where you want to focus at each moment.

Before the ballet started, The State Theatre also provided a brief “Pre-Performance Insight” with Douglas Martin, who is a member of the American Repertory Ballet and has danced Siegfried to his wife’s Odette/Odile in a previous production of Swan Lake. Unfortunately, the pre-performance part made it a bit tricky as people kept piling into the theater looking for their seats prior to the ballet beginning and making quite a bit of noise in the process. Those already trying to listen to Mr. Martin and shushing the newcomers didn’t actually do much to help the auditory problem. However, all and all, this was an interesting talk, which really did provide some insights. Martin discussed the history of Swan Lake, illustrated some frequently used pantomimes that we might see in the production, and explained some of the very difficult training that went into his wife’s performance of Odette/Odile. This made me really appreciate even more the performance I saw later of this dual role. As he pointed out, the ballerina has to play very different personas in this one ballet – sweet, innocent Odette has soft, delicate movements that are sometimes skitterish like a nervous bird while cunning, duplicitous Odile has sharper, quicker movements that are determined. But Odile is also attempting to mimic Odette’s movements, so you see that as well. It is certainly quite an undertaking, and, as I mentioned, I appreciated the ballerina’s every movement all the more after Martin described how painstakingly his wife practiced and perfected every detail, down to every hand flutter. No doubt Mariya Aleksandrova, who played Odette/Odile in this production, did the same, for it showed in her performance.

While Swan Lake was only available to see at The State Theatre today, their broadcasts continue with three other ballets and three operas over the next few months, so there’s a good chance you might find something you’ll like. Already, my friend and I have decided to go back to see La Boheme there, so stay tuned here for more updates…

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