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Swan Lake by NYCB vs. ABT

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I still have the tape of NYCB's Swan Lake, and I drag it out occasionally, usually turning it off before Act II. As I recall, Martins altered the black and white pas de deux a little, but not substantially. However, Woetzel and Weese's styles of performing them are so strange that I receive the impression that the choreography is entirely different, and he added some annoying complications to the various dances of the swan corps. They also dance the entire ballet practically in fast forward, so many nuances are lost, along with any semblance of plot.

Martins completely re-choreographed the Act I pas de trois, and removed the big swans pas de quatre. The little swans are still there, with small changes. He also altered the ending, which appears to have been stolen from "Giselle"--that is, Odette remains a swan and bourrées offstage, and Albrecht--I mean Siegfried--kneels in grief or something.

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jllaney, even when the steps in the set pieces are much the same, Martins fiddles with the musical emphases, and that changes the feeling, both kinetically and emotionally. As Hans notes, the pd3 from Act I is completely new, and the new "Russian" (?) variation in Act III is a complete abomination.

As Hans also noted, the business for the swan corps is a mess.

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The current Playbill given to those attending NYCB's Nutcracker has a lengthy preview article on the company's upcoming Swan Lake (Martins) performances. The four O/O's ( Weese. Whelan, Somogyi, Kowroski) were interviewed:

Weese now takes (the tape of) Makarova as inspiration. She worked out the story with the help of former partner Peter Boal. She feels that Odette came more easily to her.

Whelan had difficulty with her pacing early on, found Odette more natural for her. She too has taken Makarova's performance to heart, especially relying on it for her Odile.

Somogyi, who as I recall was successful in her first season with the ballet, felt an immediate affinity for the role, and "tried to let the dancing dramatize the story. I didn't worry about the 32..."

Kowroski felt that Odile came to her more naturally, even though it was technically the more difficult part for her. Peter Martins advised her to "forget about the technique and think about the character." When she danced the role at the Mariinsky, coaches objected to the way she had been taught to flutter her arms. She was told there "...long, long arms, long arms, you are not a duck, you are a swan." Lopatkina worked extensively with her. The last time I saw her Balanchine one-acter, I found it very moving. She seemed to have found its (spiritual) story, and I am very curious as to how her recent Balanchine and Mariinsky performances will transform her performance in the Martins version.

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I still have the tape of NYCB's Swan Lake, and I drag it out occasionally, usually turning it off before Act II.  As I recall, Martins altered the black and white pas de deux a little, but not substantially.  However, Woetzel and Weese's styles of performing them are so strange that I receive the impression that the choreography is entirely different, and he added some annoying complications to the various dances of the swan corps.

In fairness to Weese - who I have liked in this role -- she ddn't know she was going to perform that night until very close to curtain. Kistler was scheduled but suffered a last minute injury. Weese also usually did the ballet with a different partner -- Boal -- so was doubly disadvantaged.

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Swan Lake has two basic scenes -- The Court and the Lakeside. At the Court it's mostly waltzes and jester and the whole Black Swan thing in Act III. At the Lake it's the two great White Acts with the two pdd's -- the Swans en masse in Act II and the pdd when Siegfried discovers Odette and falls in love with her; and the denouement in Act IV with the Swans in a cirlce and Siegfried rushing in to try to find Odette and to be forgiven. These are the White Acts.

McKenzie at ABT has cut the White Acts and with them the role of the girls corps de ballet to an absolute minimum. He's completely eliminated Act IV for the girls' corps, and suggested it instead as a brief pas de quatre or something for the cygnets. Instead he's built up the waltzes in the Court to give all the boys lots and lots of dancing. He even has the suave non-reptile Von Rothbart seducing the princesses in a series of crude pas de deux at the beginning of Act III.

Now I think all that waltzing at the court of Siegfried's mom, with or without the jester, is the dullest part of Swan Lake. I'm bored by it in both versions. In McKenzie's version, though, it amounts to 3/4 of what happens.

When I think Swan Lake I think Ballet Blanc, moonlight (yes Hans, Act II Giselle a little bit too) and the girls corps de ballet in Swan mode. City Ballet does these white acts much better. Not only is their girls' corps de ballet better trained, and in better shape from top to bottom (that's the biggest difference in their favor between the two companies) -- but McKenzie has totally eliminated the White Act IV anyway so there' s no debate about this point, even if one wants to dispute which company's girls' corps is better. McKenzie has simply cut this material. If you love the White Acts, its thus NYCB pure and simple.

In that theater that first season or two, Monique Meunier -- for those who remember her then briefly in her top dancing form before she blew out her hip -- was a beautiful Odette/Odile. And Silja Schandorff, in from Denmark for one guest appearance with NYCB on a Saturday afternoon when Miranda and the other girls principals had the Flu.

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Oh yes, both Meunier and Schandorff were memorable in the role. I thought Meunier was the most moving of the NYCB women in the part. It was a larger-than-life take on the role as if Sarah Bernhardt or La Duse took the role. She took the audience into the tragedy with her.

Slightly OT, does anyone know specifically what the music is for the "reconciliation" in Act IV that both Martins and McKenzie use? It's a sort of slow, mounting wail that's wrenching to listen to. It's not in all productions; Dowell's Swan Lake uses a more decorous piece of music for the same event.

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NYCB's corps de ballet is better trained? You may wish to re-read the bios of ABT's dancers... :D From a teacher's perspective, I consider them equally well-trained.

Of course, what I'd really like to say is ditch them both and see the Kirov--now, that is a corps de ballet! :D

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What I know about Petipa you could write on a 3x5 card with a big fat crayon and still have room left over, so I can’t really speak to the degree to which Martins’ or McKenzie’s versions pervert / improve on the original choreography. I’m a complete and utter philistine where story ballets are concerned and Swan Lake is not a particular favorite in any event; for one thing it takes forever to get going. All those peasants and courtiers and servants with fruit baskets and trays and whatnot – can’t we just have the pas de trois, give Siegfried something to do that suggests that while he likes to party hearty he’s nonetheless yearning, yearning for something transcendent, have mom march out and give him a piece of her mind and the crossbow, and then get on with the white act already? (I know, I know there’s all that wonderful music to use up …) Mime? Feh. You need five gestures: Everybody Dance (optional variant: Everybody Down a Goblet of This Here Fine Vintage), Get Married, I Promise, Pathetic Fool You’ve Been Had, and Please Forgive Me I Was So Totally a Jerk. I suppose Back Off or I’ll Cast a Spell would be useful, too, but furious cape waving probably makes the same point. Odette doesn’t need a backstory. She’s a stereotypical Romantic enchanted maiden by the stereotypical Romantic lake in the woods in the moonlight, von Rothbart is the stereotypical Romantic evil sorcerer who put her there, and only the true love of a stereotypical Romantic poet figure yearning, yearning for something transcendent can save her. What more does one need to know? I like the Waltzing Princesses just fine (they are dramatically necessary), but frankly would not consider my life materially altered for the worse if I were deprived of Happy People From Many Lands Exhibiting Their National Dances in Character Shoes while we wait for Odile to barge in. It’s all the same to me whether Odette dies alone, or with Siegfried, or if they sail off into eternity in a Magic Boat so long as there is sufficient white act folderol beforehand because it’s that magical world and what happens there that really matters in the end. I would prefer that the Swan Maidens not wear those awful feathered earmuffs, however, though I gather they are de rigeur. A tradition that makes 20 year olds look fifty is a tradition we can safely abandon. So, as you can see, I am a very unreliable judge of ballets of this type since I have next to no patience with many of the conventions. I think the Balanchine distillation is a fine solution to any number of problems. If I were writing the checks for a new full length Swan Lake I’d probably ask for Midsummer Night’s Dream, just with a different story and Tchaikovsky.

So OK, with that rant as context, I think the NYCB production is just about the ugliest thing I have seen on the State Theater stage, and that’s saying a lot. The costumes look cheap and garish. The sets for the court scenes manage to reduce the stage to a tiny, airless space. I like the white act backdrops, but for a different ballet – they don’t provide any context at all for this one. (Who are these creatures? Why, they are the enchanted Jackson Pollock Maidens doomed forever to haunt MoMA after hours unless the hero keeps his vow never to be beguiled by the charms of representational painting again!) I thought Martins’ Sleeping Beauty was pretty canny: it kept the traditional look (especially the tradition of looking expensive) but jettisoned some of the traditional apparatus that is frankly less than compelling theatre (I suspect I'm going to be flamed for that ...) without undermining the ballet's emotional and dramatic content. I think his Swan Lake fails because the look has been (very superficially) updated, but the basic apparatus really hasn’t been -- just truncated -- and the whole just doesn’t come together as coherent theatre. It certainly does nothing to teach one about the genre and its formal materials. And it’s ugly – did I mention that? I'd buy tickets for After the Rain instead ...

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If you tend to like NYCB better, you may prefer NYCB.  If you prefer ABT, you'll probably prefer ABT's version. It depends on what you loathe most, but it's like discussing whether you like drowning or burning more.

To me, the question comes down to:  Would you rather have a headache or an upset stomach?  Neither version is...oh, there's a word, what is it, what is it?  Ah, that's it, "good".

I think Mr. Witchel and Mr. Johnson have both summed it up nicely for us!


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The first time I saw NYCB's full-length SWAN LAKE, I thought it was about the ugliest thing I ever laid eyes on. The costumes, especially in the opening scene, were of hideous colours and very unbecoming; the sets - drizzled paint for the lakeside scenes and dreary brown wood paneling for the court - were an eyesore.

Kyra Nichols, dancing what I think was her only performance ever in this production, was extremely moving as Odette and quite sinister as Odile, but I just thought: I never want to see this again.

But of course, I did see it again because Wendy, Miranda, Maria K and Jennie Somogyi are dancers I love and of course I had to see each of them in this huge & complex role. I learned to simply tune out the sets; after repeated viewings the Act I costumes became less jarring. The ballet is strengthened in my opinion by only have one intermission; I like having the Prince go right out on his hunting expedition after the party; and his rushing out of the ballroom scene directly to the lake to find Odette makes sense.

The production is dance, dance, dance. There is no boring old tutor and very little mime. The Jester is not annoying, as he can be in some productions, but lively and ironic with some complex combinations. The choreography for the swans is beautiful and in my opinion beautifully executed, as is the would-be-brides scene. And this production has what I think is the most powerful ending I have seen; there is no redemption and no apotheosis. Rotbart is defeated but Odette remains a swan because Siegfried betrayed his pledge to her. He is left alone and in mortal anguish at the end. Damian's portrayal at this point (on the video) is heart-wrenching.

Obviously it is not a SWAN LAKE for everyone, but I'm planning to see it 2 or 3 times this year, depending on who is dancing. Some may deem it a failure but from a practical point of view it is one of the few things at NYCB in recent years where I have seen a Sold Out sign. It was also one of the very few things I have seen there that received a full-house standing ovation (after a particularly memorable Wendy/Damian evening).

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Regarding Oberon's point, "it is one of the few things at NYCB in recent years where I have seen a Sold Out sign," January's performances have higher than average advance ticket sales, according to ticket availability posted on NYCB's site.

Re: Allegromezzo18's question "Are there jumps for Bouder?" I don't think Bouder is to perform this role. The dancers, as suggested in NYCB's current PlayBill, are to be Weese, Whelan, Kowroski, and Somogyi. These are very fine dancers, and they should all be interesting to watch. Not liking does not exclude loving.

Both ABT's and NYCB's versions were very ill-served by their telecasts. Nearly every live performance of each that I have seen has been far better than what TV viewers saw. Of course, that doesn't mean the productions are comparable in quality to prior ABT versions, Mr. Balanchine's version, nor to versions in the current rep of the Mariinsky and Paris Opera, nor to the prior Royal version.

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The televised NYCB SWAN LAKE does include one of my all-time favorite ballet moments. In the Black Swan coda, Miranda Weese (who replaced Darci on short notice) is doing a combination: 3 hops backwards and pulling up into arabesque; 3 more hops and then she attains this unbelievable balance. Every time I watch it I think my tape has jammed and stuck there because she is so still for so long. Then her left hand moves ever so slightly, like the involuntary fluttering of a swan's wing, and she continues. I always rewind and watch this segment 5 or 6 times.

One could assume that the four women who discussed the role in the Playbill will be doing it in the coming series though it isn't unrealistic to think that another one or two ballerinas might get a shot at it. I think if Ansanelli had stayed, she would have been cast this time around, and I would imagine Sylve might be doing it. No reason why Bouder shouldn't be given an opportunity, and I wouldn't mind seeing a Teresa Reichlen/Ask LaCour performance.

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I second all three of your nominations, Oberon! Tess has all the makings of a great O/O. Unlike ABT, where no dancers of the Bouder/Reichlen age group are even on next season's casting list, NYCB gives young dancers plenty of opportunities. AND THEY SELL TICKETS! Of course NYCB is loaded with exceptional young ballerinas.

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there too some breaks with tradition have been made, such as the swamp-thing Von Rothbart who appears in the prologue

Oh God, yes !...and specially when he grabs that stuffed swan by the neck.. :rofl: I coudn't believe it when i first saw it , and i would say that this is certainly not "traditional Swan Lake".


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cubanmiamiboy, thank you for resurrecting this old topic. It was interesting for me to re-read the remarks I posted here a few years ago. After another season of Martins Swan Lake and what feels like interminable viewings of McKenzies I have to admit that my assessment has changed. While I still think it’s shame that we here in NY have to chose the lesser of two evils I’m starting to think that I prefer the Martins version.

I go to see ABT’s only when there’s a dancer whose Odette I feel I must see - and who can resist going to see the likes of Nina, Part and Vishneva. But even with those great artists, their production never moves me. On the other hand - there are things I absolutely hate about the NYCB version but there are also things that I love about it and the ending has moved me to tears. The last time they did it (was it last year?) I planned to go only once. But during that first performance I was struck by the power and the beauty of the score as the NYCB orchestra plays it. It just seemed so passionate and alive. Then, when Mearns and Bouder were cast - you guessed it- I wound up going 4 more times. And if Kowroski had been cast I would have gone again.

I detest the first act scenery and costumes so much that I only got through those last few performances by taking Balanchine’s advice. I closed my eyes and listened to the music during most of the first act. Hardly what you want from a Swan Lake, but at least the rest of the ballet presented a clear, unified story with some emotional punch.

I’m still waiting for a plain vanilla Swan Lake. Maybe someday...

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(Who are these creatures? Why, they are the enchanted Jackson Pollock Maidens doomed forever to haunt MoMA after hours unless the hero keeps his vow never to be beguiled by the charms of representational painting again!)

:wink::tiphat::tiphat: Oh, God!!...the more i read about the NYCB version, the most intrigued i get about it!!

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