On Sunday, May 27, I returned to my hometown to watch the ballet school where I started dancing perform "Swan Lake" with guest artists Deanna Seay and Mikhail Ilyin (principal dancers with Miami City Ballet) as Odette and Prince Siegfried.
Both danced beautifully. Ilyin, trained at the Vaganova Academy, has clean lines, very fast, controlled pirouettes, a weightless jump with silent landings, and a grounded presence. Seay also has lovely lines, including a graceful arabesque, but most important to me was her exceptional port de bras. Each position was very clear and refined, but she moved between them softly, with a particularly "boneless" look at the end of Act II when she is turned back into a swan.
This may sound like a back-handed compliment, but I don't mean it that way: Seay's Odette was a pleasure to watch because she kept her interpretation simple. She danced the role as it is meant to be danced--she put the character first, and she proved Mel Johnson's statement true: that the most revolutionary thing a ballet company (or in this case, a dancer) could do would be to stage a plain-vanilla Swan Lake. She respected Petipa's and Ivanov's choreography, didn't flap when Odette is supposed to be human or during the Act III pas de deux, and she performed Odette's mime speech clearly. It was extremely satisfying to watch, and more people ought to follow her example.
However, this was not a stiff, slavish, "textbook" rendition of the ballet. Seay included small nuances that kept the dance alive, and she performed them so subtly that they fell into their proper place as nuances and were not blown out of proportion into anything more than what they were. For example, at the beginning of the Act II pas de deux, just after she sinks down onto one knee and bends forward, she didn't just lay there waiting to be picked up, and she didn't convulse the way some ballerinas do, making it obvious that I Am Not Just Laying Here. Instead, a tiny wave of energy pulsed through her, starting at the lower back and flowing with the music out through her fingertips. She barely moved, but it was extraordinary, conveying Odette's nervousness and hope all in that moment.
Later, at the end of the pas de deux, she did something I am thankful for: real petits battements serrés. So many dancers try and fail to make their battements so tiny that the foot appears to just vibrate against the supporting heel, and I have only seen that work once. Usually, they just end up being so small that no one can see them, and their effect is lost. Now, Seay didn't hack away at her supporting leg; it was still a small movement, but it was visible, and the foot was in exactly the right place--with the working arch covering the supporting heel.
Act III was a little bit problematic; the adagio went well (in fact the partnering was quite smooth throughout the performance) but Seay had some trouble with her pirouettes during the variation. Unfortunately, sometimes that just happens, especially when you are on an unfamiliar stage with taped-down marley and there isn't much you can do, but she got through it. I had thought that perhaps after that, she would not do the fouettés, or would maybe stop after sixteen or so, but although they did not go perfectly (there was some minor travelling) I have to hand it to her for sticking it out through all 32. That must have taken courage, and I was impressed!
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Note: I have to run for the moment, but I will come back later and write about Ilyin.
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Ilyin's Siegfried was also very well done, although in this production there was regrettably little for him to do, and I can relate to how challenging it is to try to create a character when all you are given to do is walk around a bit and stand there looking out into the audience. However, Ilyin made it work. He was refined without being feminine or light, and his gaze read all the way up to the balcony. One of the wonderful things about Vaganova Academy training is that the dancers are so used to mime that it flows from them conversationally, every gesture perfectly clear, but as effortless as speaking. This made the mime scene with the queen a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately he did not mime at the end of Act I when Siegfried goes off hunting, but his dancing made up for it. As I said before, tall jumps with silent landings, pirouettes that simply stopped on demi-pointe, and of course the famous Kirov port de bras and épaulement.
In Act II, we got more of the same quality. Crystal-clear mime with the hunters, and when he saw Odette (offstage) you knew it instantly. It's hard to describe, but instead of stretching out an arm and peering forward, he simply changed his whole body without (visibly) moving a muscle. Again, a tiny thing that read right up to the balcony.
In the pas de deux, Ilyin and Seay had good chemistry, and while he is a very little bit short for her, it was not a serious problem, and the partnering went quite smoothly, no choreographic changes necessary. One thing that struck me was that the pas de deux seemed to be performed all in one movement, and the scaled-back choreography for the corps helped create the impression that the pas de deux existed in its own world, seamless from beginning to end, especially the very end with the petits battements and pirouettes, into the lunge and final penché.
Act III was Ilyin's real shining moment. Here, the technical skill hinted at toward the end of Act I was on full display without being flashy or inappropriate. The only thing I regretted was that he was costumed all in black, and the stage was black, so it was difficult at times to see beats. During the coda, he covered the stage in about two grands jetés, so some choreographic finagling was necessary, but it worked well, and his double tour en l'air terminé en arabesque was stunning in its creamy smoothness. He reminded me a little of Herman Cornejo, but more regal and restrained. And anyone who complains about the way Russian men use their feet should watch Ilyin--his are impeccable.
Overall, it was an excellent afternoon (where else can you see MCB principal dancers for $9?) and Seay and Ilyin made it more than worth the trip. Hopefully they will return next year!