American Ballet Theatre
by Carmel Morgan
February 21, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
The Saturday matinee of “Swan Lake” by the American Ballet Theatre featured flame-haired Gillian Murphy in the dual role of Odette-Odile. In Kevin McKenzie’s production, the role of evil sorcerer von Rothbart is played by two men, in this case Roman Zhurbin and the curly-topped Cory Stearns. Gennadi Saveliev, who was paired with Murphy earlier in the week in “Pillar of Fire,” was Prince Siegfried. In “Swan Lake,” however, the couple did not generate the same level of passion.
The audience for the Saturday matinee was full of grandparents and grandchildren. Luckily for the young and old, McKenzie’s “Swan Lake” is rated G. It’s crowd-pleasing enough, but there are elements that make one cringe. Take, for example, the purple thigh-high boots and “Swamp Thing” cape of von Rothbart. This villain is far more ridiculous looking than scary. Or take the bizarre vision of Odette madly tossing her arms in Act III. Or take the spectacular suicidal leaps that bordered on comedy. Or take the reunion of the Swan Princess and her Prince after their deaths. The lovers appear embracing in the center of a pink sun, of all places! It’s completely hokey, but it’s also an ending that sends audience members out of the theater beaming.
“Swan Lake” got off to a timid start. The marbled Marley floor, in watery greenish shades, suited the Prince’s grand German castle. The ladies dancing at Prince Siegfried’s birthday party in Act I, however, seemed burdened by their puffy, unwieldy dresses. Rather than gliding across the floor, they dragged a bit. The ribbons of the May pole, which they held as they danced, often tangled. Prince Siegfried largely ignored the girls, and he didn’t seem terribly enthusiastic about his gift of a crossbow, either. The Pas de Trois – Misty Copeland, Simone Messmer, and Carlos Lopez – danced satisfactorily, but without a ton of spark. Copeland, the first black female to rise to the rank of soloist in the ABT and the shortest of the trio, displayed the most oomph.
Both Saveliev and Murphy danced with ease, and yet it was like someone forgot to flip their switches to full power. The moon and the mist in Act II should have served as a recipe for smoldering love, but Saveliev and Murphy’s meeting by the lake in the woods was somewhat tepid. The rest of the swans generated more drama. The fearful flock nervously bourréed, their eyes begging for the safety of Murphy’s Odette. These gorgeous white creatures held their crossed wrists atop their tutus, poised and anxious. The four conjoined Cygnettes could have stepped it up a notch. Their movement was small. Their heads softly turned from side to side instead of snapped. Murphy, too, could have used more force. She flapped her arms gently. I longed for some wild beats, some unruffled feathers.
As for Act III, Cory Stearns as von Rothbart did some choppy solo work, which included some unsteady landings. Murphy as the decoy Odile danced with great directness. While Odette showed shyness, Odile was all about seduction. Her undulating arms convincingly tempted the Prince away from his obsession with Odette. When Murphy slung a single arm behind her at the end of Act III, I finally felt that her power switch went on.
The highlight of Act IV was seeing the swans sitting in the lake, meditating in stillness, each with a leg elegantly elongated in back of her. The corps showed exceptional unison, their arms forming perfect V’s. Such pretty shapes, such simple grace. This is why “Swan Lake” continues to dazzle.