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American Ballet Theatre

'Swan Lake'

by Stuart Sweeney

March 25, 2009 -- Coliseum, London

American Ballet Theatre's season of full-length ballets might well have seemed a natural progression after the success of the Sadler's Wells visit, a couple of years ago, with one act works. However, bringing “Swan Lake”, in particular, to London can be a mixed blessing -- full houses are virtually guaranteed, but the critics see so many productions of this famous and revered ballet that any problems or deficiencies stand out more clearly than usual. 

ABT is famous for the strength and depth of its men, and Kevin McKenzie's 2000 production introduces a number of innovations to make the most of this virtue: Benno, Prince Siegfried's friend, dances the Act I pas-de-trois and short variations elsewhere, providing dramatic continuity and another significant male role; Rothbart is performed by two dancers – a sinister figure for the lake-side scenes, and a sexy charmer who gets an extended variation in Act III; finally Siegfried gets several chances to shine in Act I, as well as his usual solos elsewhere.

McKenzie also tries to clarify the plot for newcomers with a short prologue showing a princess enticed by the charming Rothbart, transformed by a clever piece of stagecraft into the wicked sorcerer clutching a crowned swan.  While a synopsis of the plot in the programme is an accepted device, it is a benefit if the story can be told succinctly on-stage, so McKenzie's prologue gets my vote, despite the claims of many that he is “dumbing down”. Not everyone has seen this ballet 100 times.  Another feature of McKenzie's production is a short final Act, running nearly continuously after the ball scene.  To accommodate the major scenery changeover, we have a section for a few swans in front of a skim, but the narrow space inhibits the first stages of the finale, which never fully recovers.  I did find myself thinking back to the magnificence of National Ballet of China's closing scenes, reviving Sir Frederick Ashton exquisite choreography.

ABT's sets impressed me, with a beautiful, unfussy landscape for the palace grounds and a sumptuous ballroom, both in stark contrast to the bleak lake-side setting.  The costumes were often attractive, but two bad mistakes stick in the mind: the peasant men in Act I had camp cycling shorts which distracted with their silliness; and many of the women's full-length costumes had layer after layer of petticoats inhibiting movement and muddying clear lines. 

So, the production is a mix of strong and weak points and the same can be said of the performances in the London premiere.  ABT's men lived up to their high reputation. David Hallberg was a natural danseur noble, combining musicality, expressive acting and a delightful lightness of movement for such a tall, powerful man.  When you remember that he played a rugged, fierce Death in ABT's “The Green Table”, you realize the range of this dancer is quite remarkable.  Daniil Simkin as Benno, made a much greater impact than in most productions, and I was surprised that he wasn't there to take a bow at the closing curtain, considering the value he added to the performance.  He's a great mover and, despite his diminutive size, impressed with huge, beautifully controlled jetés.  Marcelo Gomes, as the toothsome incarnation of Rothbart, had great fun with his extroverted ballroom solo, ending with a cheeky jump into the throne next to the Queen. 

Turning to the women, both Sarah Lane and Isabella Boylston danced with elegance and warmth in the pas de trios, and the corps de ballet worked their magic in the white Acts.  However, Michele Wills proved a major disappointment as Odette/Odile.  I couldn't fault her technique, but there was little drama in her movement and the apparent stiffness of her back often made her dancing dull and unappealing as the Swan Queen.  As Odile, her interpretation was difficult to fathom -- I saw no hint of a spicy or malicious temptress leading an upright man astray.  The cleanly executed fouettés featured doubles and even a triple or two, but couldn't save an uninspired performance.  Few, if any, of the critics I spoke to or read had a good word for Ms. Wiles's performance beyond mere technique, and I hope she has a chance to redeem herself later in the visit. 

So, with caveats regarding some costumes and the final Act, this production of “Swan Lake” adds a celebration of male dancing to the usual ingredients.  But overall, this particular performance has to go down as a disappointment, due to the hollow centre of Michele Wiles's portrayal.  Perhaps other ballerinas in the season, or some of the younger dancers in a couple of years, will be able to bring the art of expression back to the role.

Afterword: A friend saw Gillian Murphy on the next night, and like her Sadler's performance in the grand pas from the same ballet -- her turns were a wonder, but expression was reportedly very low on the agenda.  I see that Clement Crisp in the Financial Times was very impressed by the Russian dancer Veronika Part on the third night, so I'm pleased that at least one of the ABT Odette/Odiles has brought the role and the ballet to life in London.  A point to consider: is the US ballet competition ethos now impinging on the expressive abilities of leading principal dancers?

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