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"Swan Lake" - Nina Ananiashvili Farewell

American Ballet Theatre

by Jerry Hochman

July, 2005 -- Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Unlike most of the ballet world, I was never a “Nina-person.”  Must have been some defect in my upbringing. And although I’ve seen her dance many times, I never got around to seeing her Odette/Odile before tonight. Another developmental flaw. But I’m glad I waited: What a way to get introduced!

Nina Ananiashvili’s farewell performance in “Swan Lake,” the last of ABT’s week-long string of performances, was miraculous:  it was one of the best overall performances of Odette/Odile that I’ve seen, even by dancers at the pinnacle of their careers.

I’ve seen Ms. Ananiashvili's swan on DVD and expected that she would still be able to draw on her experience to pull out a more than adequate Odette for her final performance. But “more than adequate” hardly describes her superlative Odette. Although some steps were omitted, in the context of this performance, they were inconsequential. In every way, her portrayal of Odette had been honed to perfection. And Ms. Ananiashvili's amazingly fluid arms should be tested and analyzed for the benefit of future generations – they're unreal. Still.

But it was not her Odette that I found most impressive. For me, the dialectic between Odette and Odile is the primary reason “Swan Lake,” as ballet theater, works and although I’ve seen many superb white swans, if the black swan doesn’t fully captivate me, the performance as a whole loses its edge. And I’m fussy about Odile. For me, she can’t just do the steps and paste a salacious grin on her face – she must be sexy enough, by face, gesture, and steps, to make the temptation impossible for Prince Siegfried to resist. Although I consider Natalia Makarova's overall portrayal of Odette and Odile still to be the most compelling, with respect to Odile, it is Birgit Keil, when she danced the role with the Stuttgart in New York many years ago, who set the standard for me: I can’t recall seeing anyone since who danced Odile in a way that replicated her sensuality. Ms. Ananiashvili came close (which, for me, is high praise) – and carried off her portrayal not from appearance or technique (prodigious as it still clearly was), but from nuance and gesture. It was the small stuff that made Ms. Ananaiashvili’s Odile impossible to resist.

And as the Act III pas de deux ended in the crescendo following her strongly executed fouettés, she and her Siegfried, Angel Corella, and Rothbart, Marcelo Gomes, gave the sold out house yet one more reason to remember this particular performance. They concocted an ending to the coda that was so perfectly appropriate for both the ballet and this performance that I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before. Instead of ending the pas de deux with Siegfried, she danced toward Rothbart, who had maneuvered downstage. Rothbart then purposefully, and with sang froid bordering on nonchalance, tossed Odile into the air, and into the waiting arms of the enraptured Prince. The “pas d’occasion” brought the house down – and each of them stood on stage with broad grins on their faces because they had planned that it would, and knew that it would. Though the performance was not yet over, the celebration had officially begun.

This post-farewell performance salute festivity was somewhat unlike other recent ABT farewells. There were no tears shed by the retiring ballerina. On the contrary, Ms. Ananiashvili radiated pure joy. After the requisite bows (still always in character), after each corps swan dropped a rose at her feet, after each company principal presented her with bouquets, and after the conductor, Ormsby Wilkins, awarded her the evening’s baton (with which she subsequently moved front stage center and graciously acknowledged the orchestra), Ms. Ananiashvili bourréed stage right to stage left in salute of the assembled dancers, who collectively never stopped smiling or applauding. And more flowers. And her elfin daughter, cute as a button. And more flowers. And confetti.

Although this was Ms. Ananiashvili’s night, every dancer on stage was primed, from the corps to the principals. But extra attention must be paid to Mr. Corella, and particularly to Mr. Gomes. Mr. Corella brought a special passion to his performance that went beyond his usual bravura. Mr. Gomes brought…panache. It is impossible to envision anyone who could do a better Rothbart (the dancing one in Kevin McKenzie’s version, not the one in the lizard suit) than Mr. Gomes (even though other performances I saw earlier in the week were very well done). Mr. Gomes was not simply reptilian; he was in total control of his character, the stage, and the audience. And although it came perilously close to being over the top, his portrayal never went quite that far. It was an edgy, daring, and supremely confident performance by a dancer at the top of his game.

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