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Whelan's Swan, 1/13/00

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Wendy Whelan’s Swan, NYCB 1/13/99

With all the performances coming fast and furious these days at the New York City Ballet, I’ve fallen alarmingly behind in keeping up with writing about them, well, in starting to write about them, actually. I’ve decided that the ideal is the enemy of the good, so rather than aspire to my usual level of wit and profundity, I thought I’d bang out a quick little notice about City Ballet’s Swan Lake last night. They say familiarity breeds contempt, but sometimes, if one’s lucky, it engenders a kind of desperate, hopeless numbness. I guess I’m not quite familiar enough with Peter Martins’ Swan Lake, then. The hideous décor in the court scenes is jarring on the fifth viewing as on the first, and my mind still races in attempts to list what’s wrong with this production. I find myself wanting to say that underneath its ugly-duckling exterior there’s a mediocre ballet struggling to get out, but then I consider the hodge-podge Martins’ made of the white acts, and I feel like throwing up my hands (mostly) in defeat. "Didn’t this music used to be in the fourth act? Wasn’t there something else more interesting going on to this bit – was it by Balanchine? Petipa? Ivanov? What happened to the battus at the end of the White Swan? Didn’t Balanchine have a lot more interesting stuff going on in the "second" act? But maybe Peter needed that music for his "fourth" act. Why does Von Rotbart take off his cloak when he’s dying – so he can go out like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz?" I suppose this shows how my train of thought (not the LIRR, upon which I’m typing this) plummets from the sublime to the ridiculous. This production does make me wish I were more of a Swan Lake scholar, however.

Having said all that, I must admit that in less-jarring dress, the court scenes would probably look fine. Leaving aside snide jokes about the poor state of the laundries in, well, wherever it is ("I’m sorry, Mr. Prince, sir, but we still haven’t found who put the razor blades in the castle’s dryer yet, but we did toss in some more blue dye in the wash, just for you.") and also of interior decorating ("This is Vinnie from the Acme Grecian Column Rental Corporation. You’ve missed your last six payments on your columns, and we have to repossess them, but, seeing how youse is a prince, we’ll leave you these little busted stumps for your Jester to jump on. OK?"), Martins has made some lovely dances. It’s hard to hate the Jester when he’s danced so well by Tom Gold, and the scene where the court maidens all implore Seigfried to dance with them is a charming way of pointing out that this guy is far from the life of his own party. I liked Martins’ version of the Pas de Trois, and his Pas de Quatre in the "third" act is a gem. I’m even getting fond of the Russian dance, bizarre costumes and all. I do wonder about the white acts – this is the only Swan Lake I’ve ever seen where the "fourth" act is more interesting than the second. At least that’s how it was last night.

Since the first announcement of City Ballet’s Swan Lake, all I could think about was how wonderful Wendy Whelan would be as Odette/Odile. Say what you will about her physique, Whelan is a real goddess of the dance right now. There’s never been anyone even remotely like her that I’ve seen or read about, and some of the most glorious and breathtaking moments I’ve spent at the ballet in recent years have come while watching her dance. The only thing that kept her Titania in Dream last spring from being utterly perfect was that it deprived us of seeing her dance the second-act divertissment. Although she has many strengths and gifts, it’s in flowing adagios where she shines the brightest – her long, attenuated limbs sweep us along to some hitherto unexplored, supernatural realm where the very manner in which space and time interact becomes imbued with a sculptural weight, precipitate strength and dramatic emotion. Purple prose, perhaps, but if not to witness, and participate in, this kind of physical and spiritual transformation, why go to the ballet at all? We might just as well stay home and watch dumbass sitcoms on the tube. Compared to the magnificence of the gifts Whelan brings to us whenever she steps on stage, what does it matter if you can count every vertebra of her back from Fourth Ring (without binoculars)? She is who she is, and I wouldn’t want her any other way. Whelan proves that there’s more to a dancer and to a dance than their immediate appearance. It makes her a perfect Balanchine dancer, of course, as his ballets are imbued with just this very sense of being manifestations of some argument that’s both grander and more abstract than what’s immediately apprehendable before us.

Did I say I was going to bang out a quick little notice? Anyway, the above is why I hoped Whelan would make a real kick-ass Odette/Odile. But it was not to be last night, although she gave us many glimpses at the Swan Queen she might have been, and, I hope, will be soon.

Three things conspired against Whelan last night: the choreography, the conducting, and Damian Woetzal. First, while normally I’d applaud Martins’ efforts to keep as much as possible of Balanchine’s one-act version of the "second" act, in this case I think it might have been better for him to start afresh, or even (gasp!) use more-traditional Ivanov/Petipa choreography. I’ve always thought of Balanchine’s one-acter as more of a commentary on, or tribute to, the Ivanov/Petipa, and in its original one-act incarnation, works quite well (I still miss those silly mechanical swans). But, as the linchpin of an evening-length, storytelling ballet, well, it has shortcomings. In this context, Odette’s mime ("Over in that castle there’s a sorcerer…") becomes more important, and its absence more problematic. Moreover, the strange changes Balanchine made to the White Swan pas de deux, ending with Seigfreid and Odette, with the corps, hopping through a run of perky little sisonnes and segueing almost seamlessly into the faster ensemble sections, seems far more incongruous in this "full-length" setting. , For me, the concluding moment of the White Swan adagio, with Odette’s foot trembling at her ankle in those thrilling battus as Seigfried slowly turns her, is the very heart of this ballet. I knew, intellectually, that Whelan wasn’t going to get to do them, having seen this production before, but I felt their absence. I wouldn’t have minded Martins going against Balanchine’s memory, this once, and resurrecting the White Swan and mime. After all, there’s not really that much left of Balanchine’s one-act version here, anyway – why not make something new and cohesive that works? It’s what Balanchine would’ve done, I’m sure. I know, suggesting jettisoning Balanchine’s handiwork is sacrilege; I’d really rather City Ballet jettison this Swan Lake and goes back to the Balanchine, black swans and all, but since that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, if ever, let’s at least have something that makes better dramatic sense. It is true that Martins has made a touching and loving duet for Seigfried and Odette in his "fourth" act, which is quite successful, dramatically, but doesn’t make up for the iffy "second" act. One doesn’t go to Swan Lake for the last act!

Regarding the conducting, Andrea Quinn’s breakneck tempi for the second act turned the White Swan into a lickety-split, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair. There’s supposed to be a certain amount of repose and longeur here, with Seigfried and Odette finding, in each other, the love they’re yearning for. Last night, they didn’t appear to have time to find much of anything, except the next step. Whenever Whelan began to hit a stride, sweeping those immensely long arms and legs into a heart-piercing arabeseque, oops, it was time for the next step. I don’t expect every Odette to dance at a Makarova-crawl, but this breathless sprint to get it over with was a little ridiculous. As for Damian, he turned in another performance where it seemed his mind was elsewhere. He’s so talented, he can get away with phoning in performances, but the lack of chemistry between him and Whelan was almost as marked as between him and Miranda Weese in Mozartiana last week. The only time Woetzal seemed to be fully engaged recently was in Fancy Free, where he could perhaps allow his inner hoofer to come forward. But it’s hard for an Odette/Odile to create a memorable performance when her Seigfried is little more than attentive.

Having said all this, how was the performance? As I said, Whelan had flashes of brilliance. I loved the dramatic way she’d stab the stage with her feet in releves in fifth, and some of her small, telling details, such as the way she remembered to deliver a small, bird-like twitch of her head while posing in arabesque, after delivering those stunning entrechats and retires near the end of the "second" act. She made a particularly evil Odile, and, altogether, her Black Swan was more successful than that rushed White Swan. She managed 24 fouettes before bailing, and this was the one point in the evening where she appeared technically strained – her piques and chaines were lightning-sharp, and in the "fourth" act, she was suitably heroic and grief-stricken. Although Woetzal could doubtless turn a la seconde in his sleep, his variation and code for the Black Swan were the only times he seemed really awake – perhaps his lackluster performance on last spring’s broadcast of this ballet wasn’t as much of a fluke as I’d thought it at the time.

In supporting roles, Tom Gold was his usual whirligig as the Jester (I guess if you must have a jester, you might as well have a good one), In the Pas de Trois, and later in the Pas de Quatre, Jenifer Ringer showed that she’s developed formidable strength and technique to complement her divine musicality – she’s one of those dancers who pulls your eyes to her, whatever she’s doing. Janie Taylor was also delightfully strong and clear, although Sebastian Marcovici appeared to be in a battle to the death with his choreography, and seemed pleased to have battered it into submission. I like dancers who have a marked attack, but Marcovici shows what can happen when a dancer’s overly, obsessively punchy.

In addition to Ringer in the "fourth" act Pas de Quatre, Pascale von Kipnis showed her usual radiance, next to Rachel Rutherford’s piquancy and Benjamin Millepied’s ebullient, if somewhat unruly, jumps. Other standouts were Albert Evans, a fine dancer with far too little to do at City Ballet, in the Hungarian Dance, and Helene Alexopoulos and Charles Askegaard in the campy Russian Dance. Alexopoulos was particularly lush and sensual, and Askegaard looked at least resigned to his odd Viking-skirt costume. Jock Soto resisted the urge, as Von Rotbart, to camp it up much more than actually required by the choreography.

As for the corps, well, it was quite ragged, even for a company that was never known for precision. I’ve noticed that since their strike ended, the orchestra has been sounding much, much better, although it wouldn’t be the same if there weren’t the familiar smattering of flubs from the horn section. Andrea Quinn seemed quite pleased with herself at the curtain calls, and considering how cold it was getting outside, perhaps it was just as well that her brisk tempi sent us all home a bit earlier than usual for even this one-intermission Swan Lake.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited January 14, 2000).]

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Yes, there were quite a few cast changes. I've heard the flu has been raging through the company.

Ringer and Rutherford for Borree and Somogyi in the Pas de Quatre; Gifford for K. Tracey in Hungarian; Alexopoulos for Kowroski in Russian; Edge for Allen in Neopolitan, and Golbin and Bowers for Rutherford and Tinsley in the Six Princesses.

There, aren't you glad you asked?

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I've been looking for a way to describe Damian Woetzel for a while, and the best I could come up with was "He's the BMOC, and he knows it, and he likes it, but he can't forget it." Manhattanik's "in search of freedom for his inner hoofer" [a bad paraphrase, I know] is MUCH better. Brilliant, in fact.

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Manhattnik, you put my sentiments about Wendey's Swan Lake perfectly. Having seen her fabulous Balanchine rendition, I was expecting something special but was disappointed to see the herky-jerky performance. She did not dance with her usual fluidity -- her attack was just so strong and she looked very hard. The tempos did not help. Her "fourth act" was much better than her "Act II." Her Black Swan was marred by the 32 fouttes that traveled from the back to the front of the stage within the first 10 and it looked like the bailed on them when she figured she might finish in the orchestra pit. In addition, she took the characterization way too far. Sigfried is still supposed to think that she is Odette.

As far as I'm concerned, Ringer stole the show, both in the Act I Pas de trois and the Act II pas de quatre -- her diagonal at the end of the pas de quatre never fails to give my the chills in its brilliance. Wouldn't it be interesting to see her as the Swan (with Millepied or Boal)?

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Sorry, Dale and Manhattnik, but I don't think it would be interesting to see anyone is this production! While I have only seen the TV performance of this particular production of Swan Lake, I would hesitate to even hazard a guess as to anyone's true abilities in the roles, if only seen in this version. In fact, I find it hard to believe that anyone is actually attending performances of this ballet after having seen it once. I don't care who is dancing it, IMO it won't work and I doubt that anyone will look good. Sorry. I really hate being so negative, but I was really quite disgusted with this Swan Lake, and felt that it was a huge waste of time, talent, energy, and heaven knows, a lot of money. That people are paying money to go and see it time after time is beyond my comprehension.

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