D.C. DanceWatcher

Stepsisters and Swans

Posted in Ballet, Dance by lisatraiger on November 30, 2015

Cinderella
American Ballet Theatre
Kennedy Center Opera House
March 28, 2015

Swan Lake
The Washington Ballet
Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater
April 9, 2015
Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

It was a fortuitous spring for ballet lovers in Washington, D.C. American Ballet Theatre celebrated both its 75th anniversary and its long relationship with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in March with a revival of Ashton’s Cinderella. Then the home-town team, The Washington Ballet, hit one out of the park with its first production of Swan Lake, featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack (among other leads) – likely making history as the first African American Odette/Odile and Siegfried in a major company.

ABT’s Kennedy Center season was bittersweet, though, with the leave taking of homegrown ballerina Julie Kent, who retired after 29 years from American Ballet Theatre, making her own history as the longest serving dance in the company’s history.

copeland mackAlas, Kent, who was scheduled to dance her last time in Washington in Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, March 28, 2015, had to pull out due to injury. Instead Gillian Murphy substituted, her crystalline technique punctuating the achy Prokofiev score. The muted tones of the music and Ashton’s first act choreography were highlighted by Murphy’s portrait of the put-upon, abused sister in a household of mean-spirited and grasping women. The step sisters, en travesti roles for Craig Salstein and Roman Zhurbin asserted their mean girl status in Thursday’s opening with a thick schmear of high ridiculousness. Cinderella’s father, Clinton Luckett, was a berated depressive in this dysfunctional fairy tale family. Murphy’s broom-sweeping solo in act I ached with yearning romanticism. Her transformation, at the hands – and wand – of Fairy Godmother Veronika Part, also on opening night, was not quite magical. Part, regal and distant, is a chilly ballerina, an ice princess and later, in the act III apotheosis, Murphy, too, accompanied by her prince, James Whiteside, show her classical demeanor with little of the warmth or fluidity of her earlier characterization. Here she becomes queenly, precise: bouree-ing and spinning like a music box ballerina.

The Ashton production is not without its moments – comic bits of business by those outlandish stepsisters, or a ridiculous caricature of Napoleon as one of the ball’s guests – but even with David Walker’s lavish sets and costumes, it felt subdued, a bit deflated. The sparkle was missing. Perhaps it was the loss of Kent’s performance. Her bow to Washington came after the curtain dropped; Kent stepped on stage a wisp in her street clothes, for one final curtsy to her hometown audience.

The much publicized debut of ABT’s now principal ballerina Misty Copeland in The Washington Ballet’s first full-length Swan Lake occurred five weeks later, in the Kennedy Center’s smaller Eisenhower Theater. Heralded as a history-making first for its pairing of Copeland with TWB’s Brooklyn Mack, also African American, the media frenzy and public interest was high and ticket sales brisk. A smart marketer at the ballet screen printed t-shirts that proclaimed: “I Saw Misty and Brooklyn” across the back.

Artistic director Septime Webre brought in Kirk Peterson, who himself had an illustrious 17-year career as a principal at ABT. The former artistic director of Hartford Ballet and one-time assistant artistic director to Washington Ballet, then under the direction of the late founder Mary Day, Peterson’s expertise in restaging full-length classics shone brightly here. Webre also wisely connected with the small, but lively Evermay Chamber Orchestra, which has grown from an ensemble of five into a modestly sized but highly adept mini orchestra, here under the direction of Nabil Shehata. With just 20 full company members and three apprentices, TWB filled out its swan ranks with its 13 dancers from the Studio Company along with additional support from senior level students from the company’s professional training program.

Peterson’s production was finely wrought, well danced and equally well acted. Most notable – and gratifying – was his return to many classic mime passages that are hardly seen, at least not on American soil. He delved into Nicholas Sergeyev’s research on the 1895 original Petipa/Ivanov production following Vaganova’s 1933 Sadler Wells staging in London, which made many Sovietizing adjustments to the work. So it’s possible – or at least believable – that Peterson’s research has returned the ballet to a purer original stage – though of course we’ll never know. In any case, the mostly contemporary dancers of TWB handled the complex mime passages and dramatic sequences with ease and finesse. My favorite is the reintroduction of the passage when Odette tells Siegfried about the curse on her mother and the lake she and her swans inhabit, which was made from her mother’s tears. Equally notable: the lovely and energetic the corps de ballet, particularly in the Lev Ivanov white acts. They were not a unified singular body, but, oh, how they danced with vigor and liveliness.

The main question on most readers’ minds, though, remains, “How did Misty do?” Admirably well considering that Odette and Odile aren’t really her roles. Copeland is a force to be reckoned with. She is a strong dancer, a formidable powerhouse of a mover who can take up space and radiate personality. What she’s not is a classical princess, nor is she, as Odile, a determined seductress. Copeland has the technical chops to knock many roles out of the park. But for Odette, she lacks an abiding sense of fragility and litheness. She understands the physical musculature necessary, for example for her arms to undulate like a bird’s wings, but she doesn’t yet – and may never – have the languid, free-flowing fluidity to make me believe she could in fact take flight. As Odile, of course, beyond being a seductress with an ulterior motive, she has to whip out those beloved and despised fouettes. Alas, for a ballerina of her power and steadiness, it should be an effortless task, one that is barely noticeable, but there was a glitch, she didn’t hit her mark or the count.

As for Copeland’s partner, Mack, who completed his sixth season with the company in the spring, and received some of his training in Washington, D.C. at the Kirov Academy, was an adequate Siegfried. He was not, though, fully believable as a prince. He’s a romantic, but with a more modern sensibility. I’ve seen him expertly and suavely woo a Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. What he is not, or at least not yet, is a fully classical prince with that sense of elevated self importance, but also that sigh-inducing reverie, that soul-searching quest ever at hand. He has the power to let loose the big jumps and stage engulfing leaps, but he didn’t discover the intense emotional connection with his partner, Copeland, that is necessary for Swan Lake to soar. Alas, they both remained more prosaic than passionate. Now that Copeland has attained the status of principal, there are more classical roles in her future. Time will tell as to whether she can truly attain the classical realm in her dancing. Physically she has the ability; it’s a matter of becoming fully immersed in the drama and emotional life of her role that will make Copeland a true classical ballerina.

This review was published originally in the Fall 2015 issue of Ballet Review and is reprinted here with kind permission. To subscribe, visit http://www.balletreview.com/.

Photo: Brooklyn Mack and Misty Copeland in Swan Lake, by Theo Kossenas

 

‘Swan Lake’ Soviet-Style

Posted in Ballet by lisatraiger on January 17, 2015

Swan Lake
Mariinsky Ballet

January 28, 2014
Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington, D.C.

By Lisa Traiger

Swan-Lake-100 corps

Mariinsky Ballet corps de ballet

Swan Lake, the very epitome of ballet, is both the apex and the aspiration of companies the world over. The 1895 Petipa/Ivanov version for St. Petersburg still lives on in structure and in oral tradition passed on from ballerina to ballerina, generation to generation. St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet remains the ultimate exponent of this fairy tale of a white ballet.

For the Mariinsky’s now annual Kennedy Center visit, the company brought its “Stalinized” staging from 1950, in which Konstantin Sergeyev stripped out substantial passages of mime, “streamlining” and “Sovietizing” the first act. But this alteration is minor compared to the “Stalinized” happy ending, instead of the more poignantly satisfying one that unites the lovers in death – a finale Western audiences are far more accustomed to seeing.

The sheer scope and accumulated tradition that the Mariinsky maintains lends this production its richly lustrous look. Igor Ivanov’s sets – a gothic castle overlooking the action, balconies in the great hall for trumpeters to herald, a moody, moon-washed wooded lake – are beautifully painted and detailed. The action shifts from a warm afternoon glow in the castle grounds of act one to the frost-tinged forest lit in an icy blue in act two. Costumes, as well, by Galina Solovyova are richly decorated and detailed, as is the dancing, which is to be expected by this still illustrious company.

swanlake sergeyevBringing just one set of principles to Washington this year, left Odette/Odile and Siegfried open to soloists and second soloists save opening night. That evening’s principals, Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov, are familiar to District audiences from their run in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella in 2013. While they are a model attractive couple, the dramatic connection was simply not there, making it hard to believe the prince was love struck and pining for the Swan queen. Somova, lithe and flexible, willowy in that Mariinsky manner so suitable for Odette, was icily cold in her transformation to the black swan. She was so chilly it was hard to believe Siegfried could become transfixed by her standoffish demeanor. In whipping out the requisite fouettes – in single-double-triple combination – she wobbled and bobbled a bit, but pulled herself back steadying her whipping of that aggrandized the moment. She drew requisite applause even if she didn’t mesmerize.

One of Sergeyev’s unnecessary additions to the ballet is the role of the Joker. Clad in a black-and-white Harlequin unitard and with excessive mugging and leaping, he steals the spotlight from many of the act 1 divertissements and the prince’s introspective solo moments. By excising much of the mime, Sergeyev also bled the ballet of the essential core of this story-driven work. Instead, we are left with manege after manege, chock-full of barrel turns and grand jetes punctuated with pirouettes. Vladislav Shumakov had the forceful physicality to pull off his bag of balletic tricks, but the character is an unfortunate afterthought muddying the near-perfection crafted by Petipa-Ivanov.

Shunted aside is the role of Siegfried’s wonderful hunting buddy, Benno. And even the Prince’s mum, danced by the regal Elena Bazhenova, has lost much of her job in act one; she barely has an opportunity to tell her bachelor son he must choose a bride.

In Ivanov’s glorious white acts, the Mariinsky corps asserts itself as this production’s true star. Even looking slightly askew at times, the corps remains unsurpassed among ballet companies. Swaying, breathing, and bourre-ing as one, the Mariinsky corps is the epitome of Swan Lake. Alas, in the Sergeyev version instead of the purity of 24 white swans, the choreographer has clad eight in black, Rothbart’s hench-swans. They battle, and then in near-cartoon fashion, Siegfried and Rothbart spar unfurling grand jetes and chaines like a Bruce Lee flick. Siegfried tugs off Rothbart’s wing, doing in the sorcerer and breaking his spell over Odette and her swan sisters. Ending more like a Disney film than a classical ballet, the prince and former swan queen go off into the sunrise, presumably happily ever after.

Unfortunately, the soul of this ballet lives in the pairing of Odette and Siegfried. Somova and Shklyarov, however adequate were not transcendent, which is what a Swan Lake needs, particularly in a era when so little else in the world can lifts one’s spirits into a higher realm.

This review was originally published in the print-only Ballet Review, winter 2014-15 issue. What? You don’t subscribe? Learn more here.

(C) 2015 Lisa Traiger