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Peter Martins's Swan Lake revisited


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#1 Anne

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Posted 10 October 2010 - 05:41 AM

On the 5th of October I went with a lot of expectations to a performance of Peter Martins’s Swan Lake with the RDB, which was revived few weeks ago. I was excited for three reasons: I have seen this version many times and every time I have enjoyed it immensely, but last time was nearly 10 years ago, so what would I think of it now? The second reason was, that the revival has beeen subject to a proper beating in the press. The critics (with a single exception) have called Martins’s version undramatic and dull, the setdesigns and costmes by Per Kirkeby partly decidedly ugly. Only the dancers seem to rescue the ballet from total failure. The dancers were, admitted, my third and truest reason for excitement: Gudrun Bojesen as Odette/Odile at the very hight of her carrier, and Alban Lendorf, the young shooting star of the RDB, as her Prince.

How was it then? As an overall view I still think this version is one of the most convincing attempts to tell this evergreen story about love and loss.
But let me start with the setdesigns and costumes:
I agree, 1st act is a mess to look at! Per Kirkeby’s yellow-brownish backdrops and costumes in either strong complementary colours or more subdued nuances look like they are taken from (at least) two different productions. And this medley of colours and styles obscures the lines and formations of the corps (not that they were particularly clean anyway). Another problem is, that the production was originally made for the much smaller stage in the old theatre. The transfer to the new opera house makes the scenery look even more naked. The number of guests for the Prince’s birthday party looks quite small in these spacious surroundings. The same problem returns in act 3, only the eyes can stay more at rest, as the courtiers’s costumes are changed to black.
But then: To me the two white acts are still sheer magic to look at. The backdrops are abstract but with a lot of allutions to nature, which allow the eye to wander and the mind to make it’s own interpretations. Odette is the only swan in tu-tu, the corps wear skirts just above the knee, which make them look very swanlike, especially when the dancers fold themselves together on the floor. Towards the end of 4th act black swans appear, and it has an enormous effect, not only dramatically but also visually. I get a shock every time! It happens with great suddenness, and it’s like a black army is taking the stage in control. In the first place there are only four of them, introduced by Rothbart, like they are his own personal guard, but in the end half of the swans are black, which makes the end, where Odette disappears among the retreating swans to enter eternal swan-hood, even more gloomy. The idea of introducing black swans is not new, but I doubt it has been used in this way before. Fortunately most reviewers agree that the ending of the ballet is both highly moving and very original. The way the swans withdraw backwards in a complicated pattern and disappear into the far right corner of the stage is simply breathtaking!
And what about Peter Martins’s choreography? As far as I can see, most of the choreography is new except the famous pas de deux’s and solos of Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile, which are still recognisably Petipa, though varied and twisted in many ways. Especially the arms and upper body of Odette are more natural and less formal, allowing her more real contact – even frontal embracements – with her prince . Martins uses the arms a lot in general, not only as an ornament but as a means of expression. Martins’s swans are the most sorrowfull and expressive lot I have ever seen. With the arms they describe everything from anger over fear to imaginary tears streaming down face and body. That is not new, but I haven’t seen it done more expressively anywhere else. That is one of the reasons why I can’t understand the many critics who claim, that Martins reduces Swan Lake to pure dance à la Balanchine. And for the courtdances of act 1 and the national dances of act 3 I haven’t yet seen any production where these dances were anything else than entertainment.
Not that there is nothing to critisize or to question. The entrance of the swans, for example, is strangely military, they almost stamp their feet into the ground, which goes a bit against the music. I wonder why? Are these swans a more heroic or angry sort than we normally see? As the hunting party lift their weapons against them, the swans give them a hard time, making a collective threatening move towards them, which forces the hunters to lower their weapons and retreat temporarily.
And what about Benno? He does nothing but dance and stand around in 1st act, and after his short reappearance as part of the hunting party in the 2nd act he disappears completely. The court jester has taken over his place as friend and helper (though not a very sincere friend), and Benno could as well have been left out completely.

An absolutely astonishing thing about this version are Martins’s many swan formations. If you ever go and see it, remember to buy a ticket in one of the upper ranks where you can overview the stage. It is amazing how they can do these patterns, which kind of grow out of each other in never ending circles, spirals and crossing lines, without loosing orientation – and they do them so fast! It is a marvel to look at.

Among the dancers three of them tower over them all: first of all Gudrun Bojesen as Odette/Odile. After having seen her Giselle this winter I wasn’t in any doubt that she could do a marvelous Odette. She can be etheral and human and warm at the same time, and this makes her ideal for this enchanted creature. And technically she is at that point of her developement, where she has so many resources that she can concentrate on filling every step and movement with meaning without ever giving the technical struggle away. And what I like so much about her, is that she is never showy, only as a means of characterization, as is the case when she turns into Odile. And here came for me the big surprise: As smooth and tender her dancing had been when she was Odette, as razorsharp and fast was her Odile, and sensual in a very chilly way.
Her prince was the 21 year old Alban Lendorf, who had his debut as Prince Siegfried at the first night of the revival few weeks ago. This evening was his third performance. Being a prince has it’s own difficulties, because much of the time you just have to BE on the stage and fill it without really doing very much, and thereby still make the audience believe that you are the most imortant person on that stage. Lendorf has this natural stage presence, and he made a very convincing personality out of this brooding prince, who doesn’t want to take part in the festivities around him, especially not after his mother has introduced the idea of matrimony to him. Lendorf still has to make this prince his very own, but he wisely chooses not to overdo anything, and it looks like he tries out the role from inside out. Technically he is overwhelming. There has been written a lot about his jumping skills which are truly remarkable, but here he showed another skill which at least I haven’t yet seen unfolded in that rich measure: He is an excellent partner, which is astonishing for his young age. Gudrun Bojesen was lifted, transported and turned around with extreme ease and elegance. No trembling knees or shaking arms, only smoothness . She was lifted into the air and put down again as a delicate piece of china. Bojesen’s way of dancing has always had the air as if she had plenty of time (by that I mean that nothing ever looks rushed), and in that respect she and Lendorf suit each other very much. They both are calm and strong dancers with a quick technique. I think they will make a terrific couple and I hope they are going to do many things together in the future!
The third star of the evening was Tim Matiakis as the court jester. He could jump and turn with such speediness and ease, that the audience gasped for breath and applaused spontaneiously on several occasions.
In 1st act Nicolaj Hansen was cast for the Pas de trois with J’aime Crandall and Lena-Maria Gruber. He is a very sympathetic dancer with a nice stage presence, who did a very charming figure in many character roles during the Bournonville festival in 2005. But he has disappointed a bit in later years, and he shouldn’t have been cast in a role like Benno, where he has to do a lot of bravoura dance. He is simply not that kind of dancer. The ladies did well. Especially the Austrian import Lena-Maria Gruber is an utterly charming addition to the corps. A tiny dancer with a lot of character. Among the dancers in the many national dances of 3rd act I was happy to see the sweetfaced corpsdancer Elisabeth Dam again, whom I haven’t seen since the Bournonville festival in 2005. She was refreshingly cast against her natural type as the leading female in the the Hungarian Dance together with a fiery Constantin Baecher.
In 3rd act Peter Martins has interpolated a new Pas de quattre with three women (Jodie Thomas, Kizzy Matiakis and Diana Cuni) and one man (Marcin Kupinski). The choreography is charming, and especially Diana Cuni impressed with her great musicality and phrasing ability, and I simply love the way she can make the choreography significant. She is never anonymous, and neither is her dancing. Marcin Kupinski is light as a feather and jumps meterhigh, but somehow he lacks grounding. Lightness without it’s counterpoints, weight and shadow, is at length not interesting. Lloyd Riggings, a former principal at the RDB who is of the same slight build as Kupinski, had this problem too in his youth. In an interview some years ago (I’m sorry I can’t remember in which paper anymore), he said something interesting about this: When he did Albrecht for the first time, he had to learn to walk properly, which was about the most difficult he had ever tried. I think it was Kronstamm who coached him in this, and from him he learned how to get ”weight”, so that he was no longer just a ”bouncing ball” (he actually used that word about himself). And he did learn and was suddenly much more interesting to look at. I hope Kupinsky will learn as well, because he is no doubt a talented dancer, if not gifted with the highest acting skills.

The RDB is certainly in a very intersting period at the time being, with many talents popping up everywhere. My only fear is, that Nikolaj Hübbe is promoting too many of them at the same time. 5 different Siegfried/Odettes are sharing 18 performances, among them several debutants (4 of the Siegfrieds are new to the role!). That doesn’t give any of them a chance to grow naturally into and with their role. The same is the case with Napoli, which runs again now, and I fear that it is a principle for Hübbe, maybe one he has brought with him from New York. I’m not sure that is healthy for the company, and it must take a lot of resources to teach the part to so many people.

#2 Jane Simpson

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Posted 12 October 2010 - 01:26 PM

Thank you for another detailed review, Anne - it's very good to hear about the soloists as well as the principal dancers. Also it's interesting to read someone who sees a lot more good in this production than many people do! I'll be thinking of what you said, when I get to see it myself. Hope they don't change the casts before then!

#3 rg

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Posted 13 October 2010 - 05:57 AM

with regard to the swan-maiden formations in this production, Martins is on record, more or less, noting that in particular for the first lakeside scene his staging is "essentially Balanchine's" version for NYCB, additionally, some of the patterning for the final lakeside scene might also owe something to Balanchine's staging, as it incorporates music from act 4 of Tchaikovsky's score as well as of that for act 2.

#4 Anne

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Posted 13 October 2010 - 10:25 AM

with regard to the swan-maiden formations in this production, Martins is on record, more or less, noting that in particular for the first lakeside scene his staging is "essentially Balanchine's" version for NYCB, additionally, some of the patterning for the final lakeside scene might also owe something to Balanchine's staging, as it incorporates music from act 4 of Tchaikovsky's score as well as of that for act 2.

Thank you for that interesting information! I did know that Martins has "stolen" from Balanchine as well as from Petipa - you only steel from the best, as he puts it in the programme note for this production. But I have never seen Blanchine's version and therefore don't know what exactly he has taken from it and what not. Except that I know that Balanchine also had black swans at some time, but from what I know they were all black. As far as I know, Balanchine's Swan lake doesn't exist on dvd or any other available medium - I would love to see it!

#5 rg

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Posted 13 October 2010 - 11:02 AM

Balanchine's SWAN LAKE is not available on commercial video.
A performance of the "Love Duet" with Maria Tallchief and Andre Eglevsky is on video in something of Balanchine's version, but it was filmed before he added the ending now in place to the music Tchaikovsky originally composed in 1877, and thus not to the Drigo-composed ending for the 1894/95 Petipa/Ivanov choreography.
as for use of black for the swan maiden ensemble, this was not in place during Balanchine's time, when all the female dancers were dressed in white - initially by Cecil Beaton and then by Rouben Ter-Arutunian.
the use of black came with the staging Peter Martins oversaw of Balanchine's ballet after his death - Kirstein, who likely commissioned the designs for the post-Balanchine staging from Alan Vaes, a designer her favored, said at the time that Balanchine had previously spoken of doing this in his day.
to the best of my knowledge, however, i don't think there is any record to confirm these Kirstein-suggested thoughts as Balanchine's own. Martins also added six more swan maidens to the ensemble, thus, somewhat congesting the stage pictures Balanchine originally composed. still, the current NYCB version, that is the one overseen by Martins as NYCB Ballet Master in Chief, has a simple: choreography by Balanchine credit.
as for stealing, i don't think Martins has shied away from noting that he took ideas for his staging from his familiarity with Balanchine's, Ivanov's and Petipa's stagings of SWAN LAKE.

#6 Anne

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Posted 13 October 2010 - 11:17 AM

as for use of black for the swan maiden ensemble, this was not in place during Balanchine's time, when all the female dancers were dressed in white - initially by Cecil Beaton and then by Rouben Ter-Arutunian.
the use of black came with the staging Peter Martins oversaw of Balanchine's ballet after his death - Kirstein, who likely commissioned the designs for the post-Balanchine staging from Alan Vaes, a designer her favored, said at the time that Balanchine had previously spoken of doing this in his day.
to the best of my knowledge, however, i don't think there is any record to confirm these Kirstein-suggested thoughts as Balanchine's own.

On the homepage of the Balanchine Trust I found this short notice about the black swans: "In 1986, the production was entirely redesigned to dress the swan corps in black. The idea of black swans apparently started with Balanchine, who purchased 400 yards of black tarlatan before he died." (George Balanchine Trust)

#7 Jane Simpson

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Posted 22 October 2010 - 04:02 AM

Thomas Lund dances Siegfried for the first time next week, with guest Jurgita Dronina as Odette/Odile: David Amzallag has some nice rehearsal photographs as a taster.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 28 October 2010 - 06:34 PM

Eva Kistrup reviews Thomas Lund's performance as Siegfried in the Royal Danish Ballet's production of "Swan Lake" in her danceviewtimes blog.

A Late Siegfried

The Peter Martins production has been a part of the standard repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet for most of Thomas Lund's career. Yet up till now he has only done the fool and some of the divertissements. But this year he finds himself cast as Siegfried and for some reson his performances with guest star Jurgita Dronina is placed at the end of the run. This has obviously given Lund the opportunity to prepare well for this opportunity and his dancing also demonstrated how much thought and care had been invested in each steps and phrases. It also raises the question, Can a dancer be over prepared?



#9 atm711

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Posted 29 October 2010 - 03:55 AM

Briefly off topic in reply to the question above---Can a dancer be overprepared? Yes--I saw it happen to a favorite dancer, Ruthanna Boris when she was with the Denham Ballet Russe in the late '40's. She was outstanding in the balanchine/fokine repertoire but her audience wished her to dance one of the classics. Much to our joy, she finally got a chance to do their 2-act Nutcracker---which proved a disaster. She was overly ripe and her performance fell flat.

#10 Jane Simpson

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 04:50 AM

I finally got to a couple of performances - Dronina/Lund and Bojesen/Lendorf. I didn't hate the production quite as much as some do, and found a lot to enjoy in the dancing. Full details now up on the ballet.co magazine.

My final conclusion was that the best dramatic partnership would be Bojesen/Lund at last night's last-of-run performance and I gather I was right!

#11 papeetepatrick

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 08:06 AM

What a fine article. I'm so glad you linked to it--so many details and it brought things to life I wouldn't have imagined even in the performance I saw here. I agree I don't think anybody would look good in the Russian man's costume, that it was one of the most hideous things I ever saw in a ballet, but I do recall some thought it was effective somehow.

It must be that writing for magazines that are exclusively devoted to dance can allow for this kind of writing, as is also seen in DanceView Times; it hadn't occurred to me until I read this one, though, that the most famous critics, as Macaulay in the NYTimes, often have to 'sell ballet', since it is often perceived as 'endangered', as well as write about the performances themselves, and with lots of superlatives and lows as well to make it more sensational. I can see why those broad strokes are needed in the big papers, but this is much more of a pleasure to read for me, which may mean I'm gradually getting a little less superficial in my understanding of ballet.

Esp. liked the descriptions of the sets and the way they harmonized with the auditorium (always that wonderful Scandinavian use of wood), but also was interested in Dronina, whom you described as 'her dancing is spectacular, in the current fashion'. Does that mean she might be like another Osipova, with the extensions that are by now so easy that they don't stick out? or that this kind of spectacular dancing is by now almost taken for granted (I've noticed in the 4 years I've been reading here, that the controversy over extensions is not so hotly debated anymore, which may mean that more and more are able to do them effortlessly--the one clip I've seen of Osipova was like that, they didn't seem affected).

(The second one, from the ballroom back to the lake, is rather beautiful in its own right - almost part of the choreography.)


I think I was struck by that too last winter, and that even many of the most naysaying balletomanes (about this particular production) rather found that original. I recall it has a crisp, somewhat sudden feel to it (I may not know, of course, but there was a sort of very economical sense to it, in the best sense.)

Hadn't known that the Act II was so 'after Balanchine', which I saw only once so many years ago.

The panelled set for the third act, which I've seen described as dark and gloomy, also looks perfectly natural here - it could easily have just grown out of the surrounding walls.


Really liked that, and the painted curtains and backdrops too.

#12 Anne

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 10:50 AM

I agree with every word of Papeetrick! It is a great pleasure to read reviews like this one, well-written and with all the details and background informations which you can only get from someone with a big knowledge of ballet.

Many ballet critics in the newspapers are very knowledgeable too, but they are allowed very little space in recent time, at least in the Danish papers, and it therefore very limited what they can squeeze into the few columns they get. I have never thought of the dimension you write about, Papeetrick, that the reviewers are somehow trying to "sell ballet", but of course that must be a schizma in this age of endagered culture. Being an art enthusiast and a reviewer at the same time might put you into a dilemma sometimes.

#13 papeetepatrick

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 11:52 AM

Thank you, Anne. And I also hadn't known that Martins's Swan Lake was made for RDB. I started hearing about it after years of being totally out of the balletgoing loop--and it never occurred to me that Martins would be making a large work for any company except NYCB, even if RDB is his old home. Seeing it at RDB might make it seem totally different from seeing it at NYCBallet, where the emphasis has always been on a lot of energy and maybe even boisterousness (all the years of complaints about sloppiness having also always had to do with not enough rehearsal time.) Alexandra got me started on an interest in Bournonville, which I couldn't really fathom at first, and with each new report, I realize I have to eventually schedule Copenhagen during a season, as I'm convinced RDB is a rare, unique world of its own. Someone mentioned they'd be touring, including New York, which means I'll see them, but eventually I want to see that new opera house, which does sound elegant.

Jane mentioned the old Royal Theater, and so that was still being used at least in 1996. Is it still operative, and what is presented there now? I know nothing of Danish theater, and little about Swedish, a little here and there about the latter (have at least read 'Miss Julie'), probably mostly from Ingmar Bergman movies.

#14 Joan

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Posted 07 November 2010 - 02:44 PM

Thank you, Anne. And I also hadn't known that Martins's Swan Lake was made for RDB. I started hearing about it after years of being totally out of the balletgoing loop--and it never occurred to me that Martins would be making a large work for any company except NYCB, even if RDB is his old home. Seeing it at RDB might make it seem totally different from seeing it at NYCBallet, where the emphasis has always been on a lot of energy and maybe even boisterousness (all the years of complaints about sloppiness having also always had to do with not enough rehearsal time.) Alexandra got me started on an interest in Bournonville, which I couldn't really fathom at first, and with each new report, I realize I have to eventually schedule Copenhagen during a season, as I'm convinced RDB is a rare, unique world of its own. Someone mentioned they'd be touring, including New York, which means I'll see them, but eventually I want to see that new opera house, which does sound elegant.

Jane mentioned the old Royal Theater, and so that was still being used at least in 1996. Is it still operative, and what is presented there now? I know nothing of Danish theater, and little about Swedish, a little here and there about the latter (have at least read 'Miss Julie'), probably mostly from Ingmar Bergman movies.

Hi
The old stage is the home for the royal danish ballet snd they normally has one production at the new Opera houce which of cource is the home for the Royal Danish Opera.
The next performance at the old stage will be sleeping beauty. Christopher Wheeldon, is creating a completely new version of the ballet for the royal danish ballet.
French set designer Jérôme Kaplan is the creator of both the set and costume design for this production.

Principal Dancer Caroline Cavallo will retire from the Royal Danish Ballet following a 21-year career with the Company. She will dance her final performance in the role of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty on Wednesday evening, December 15th, 2010.

#15 Anne

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Posted 08 November 2010 - 09:54 AM

Welcome to Ballet talk, Joan. It is great to have another Dane amongst us! I hope you will join the discussions and smalltalks in this little corner of Ballet talk belonging to the RDB.


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