I saw two Swan Lakes within 8 days recently. The first was the National Ballet of Canada performing James Kuldelka's adaptation in the Four Season's Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. The second was the Russian State Ballet celebrating the opening of Daniel Libeskind's Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin. One might wonder why attend two within such a short time, but circumstances offered no choice. It has been some years since I have seen this over-familiar ballet live, and the possibility of seeing modern and traditional versions close together appealed to me. The only other modern Swan Lake with which I am familiar is John Neumeier's 'Illusions like Swan Lake' based on the madness of Ludwig of Bavaria. I like Nureyev's POB version with Letestu and Martinez, and I don't think that he strays excessively from the original. Makarova/Dowell and Makhalina/Zelensky are of course the definitive interpretations among those on DVD. I have no difficulty with adaptations of familiar classics, though I am aware of the opinion that what would now be innovative would be a faithful revival of Petipa and Ivanov's original.
The National Ballet of Canada is rightly proud of James Kuldelka's take on Swan Lake, first performed in May 1999. He replaced Petipa's acts I and III almost completely, but wisely made fewer changes to Ivanov's II and IV white acts, maintaining, I'd say, as much as 75% of the familiar choreography. There is a large athletic male cast in the first act, with only a single female, described as a wench. Why she was being tossed around between them all was clarified by the review in the following day's Globe and Mail, which stated that 'her gang-rape was particularly cruel'. The programme's synopsis was much more discreet, and somehow I'm glad I didn't know this was what was being portrayed. The violence on stage must have been subliminally transmitted as I was surprised at the depth of my hostility towards some latecomers being allowed to disrupt the centre of the stalls during the performance. I liked Kuldelka's robust choreography, not only because all the social dancing in the traditional first act can drag a little.
Xiao Nan Yu was simply exquisite as Odette/Odile, notwithstanding her fluffing the last few of her 32 fouettés. After a moment with her face buried in Rothbart's arms, while the audience held its breath, she turned on a brilliant smile and danced her way back into our hearts, and Siegfried's. Siegfried that night was the new principal, Jiri Jelinek, previously of Stuttgart Ballet, giving his debut performance with the National Ballet of Canada. He was technically excellent if a little understated. The cast appeared under-rehearsed as there were too many errors, but overall I enjoyed it. The standing ovation was probably motivated by a desire to welcome Jiri; and to show support and appreciation for Xiao's otherwise excellent performance but it seemed to this observer to be emotional incontinence. I am more familiar with cooler European audiences. There was an excellent pre-performance talk by a dance historian whose name now escapes me, on the first floor of the Centre's glass-fronted three-storey foyer. It was rather an odd experience to be surrounded by the Friday evening rush-hour traffic on Queen and University and not hear a sound from outside: a tribute to modern acoustic engineers.
I'll be back next season. Kuldelka is re-imagining Cinderella in November, and the 2011 season includes Don Quixote, and works by Balanchine, McGregor, Pite, Tharp, Béjart, Wheeldon, and Ratmansky. (www.national.ballet.ca). Porter Airlines now flies into Toronto City airport, ten minutes from downtown, from Newark, Boston and Chicago.
The Russian State Ballet (of Siberia?) is one of those touring companies that seem to perform nothing but Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Giselle. Perhaps I am being unfair, but these are all they ever bring to Dublin. Harsh commercial realities no doubt prevail. They imported Galina Stepanenko and Alexander Volchkov, both current principals of the Bolshoi Ballet, for the opening of Daniel Libeskind's Grand Canal Theatre two weeks ago. The theatre is set in a new square south of the river Liffey, and open to the water on one side where the Grand Canal joins the river. (The theatre looks superb and is more successful than Libeskind's Crystal extension to the Royal Ontario Museum further along University Avenue from the Four Season's Centre in Toronto. That was a brilliant idea rather poorly executed). It is a visual surprise to enter Grand Canal Square as it is hidden by surrounding modern offices. There are coffee shops and restaurants all around.
The ballet was the usual traditional Russian version with the jester and a happy ending. The corps and soloists were all highly competent, no doubt due to endless repetition, and the staging and costumes sumptuous. Stepanenko was particularly good, Volchkov was rather like Jelinek, a little low-key but technically accomplished. My wife and daughter loved it, and I'll admit my expectations for this performance -and those of my two sceptical college-age sons- were exceeded, to the extent that we already have tickets for Giselle in March 2011.
National Ballet of Canada Toronto, Russian State Ballet, Dublin
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