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Swans are born and made: NYCB 1/15/00 (Silja Schandorff)

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Swans are born and made – NYCB 1/15/00

Watching Silja Schandorff’s fully realized performance in Swan Lake teaches much about what it takes to make a swan, and what it takes to dance Peter Martins’ choreography.

Schandorff, a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet and one of the originators of the role when it was created on the Danes in 1996, replaced Miranda Weese in the dual role of Odette and Odile. I’ve now seen four women in these roles (Meunier, Weese, Whelan and Schandorff) and there’s no question that Schandorff was the best prepared, even with having to fly trans-Atlantic and with perhaps a day’s rehearsal with her partner. She’s now done the role for three years, but even more importantly, the thought that struck one like a thunderbolt on even her first entrance was “My God! She’s actually been *coached*!” There was never a single moment Schandorff seemed left to her own devices. It didn’t look fey, or artificial and overcoached, it just didn’t look thoughtless. It’s not even a matter of her arms and legs being in the right position (they were, always.) She knew who she was, whether Odette or Odile. She knew who Siegfried was. She always knew why she danced. She knew when she was swearing her love, when she was saying “no”, when she was leaving him forever.

I’m not trying to denigrate Schandorff by emphasizing how much it seems she had help. She also very obviously has excellent instincts and facility and can act. But in a full-length narrative ballet like Swan Lake, instincts are not enough, and each ballerina has different problems and shortcomings she needs to solve, and one senses instinctively from the wholeness of the solutions that Schandorff had good advice and coaching. Schandorff is also the first of the ballerinas I’ve seen who is a more natural Odette than an Odile. (I was surprised to see how much more comfortable Whelan was as the Black Swan. Meunier is a far more complex matter, her grand-scale Odette and malevolent Odile vie with each other.) Schandorff has what seems on stage to be a naturally gentle nature – her Odette in the second scene was not a tragic heroine, but a pathetic victim, which makes perfect sense dramatically, in that scene one still could hope for rescue. But what to do with a sweet tempered Odile? Schandorff makes it work by relying on von Rotbart. Even her Odile is a good girl, she does what Dad tells her to do. Constantly following his lead and returning to him for further instructions, she never seems to realize the full consequences of what she’s doing. It’s a game of charades, and she’s the winner. As the sorcerer, Robert La Fosse, was exuberantly malevolent, and it worked well with her Odile.

Schandorff also had to surmount technical consideration. She is a good technician, and she dutifully turns out her 32 fouettes, but she’s an adagio ballerina, not an allegro one. Watching the subsidiary roles, one sees the divides, and also sees that Martins choreographs primarily for allegro ballerinas. Pascale van Kipnis and Jenifer Ringer are both promising soloists, but van Kipnis is an allegro dancer, Ringer an adagio dancer. One notices the breath they take out of a movement, but they both are prettily schooled, and both breath up and take a legato moment before they unfurl the leg. But watch van Kipnis or Jennie Somogyi or Miranda Weese move *into* an extended position. It’s there in a flash, and held with no resonation; picture perfect. As Balanchine might have said, “And!” and they’re there. Ringer and Schandorff grow to positions, and there’s an interior motion, even at the top of a pose. They never stop moving. Van Kipnis and Ringer both do the second solo in the first scene pas de trois, with its beats and sharp extensions, it’s more suited to van Kipnis. Martins choreographs photos, crackling batterie and “here, no *here*!” endings, his heart has never been in his adagios.

Schandorff has leeway to change some of her steps. She deletes the attitude turns en dehors at the beginning of Odile’s variation but she (and Martins) substitute intelligently; turns were replaced by a grand rond de jambe to an arabesque pose that provided the same brilliant effect through extravagance of line. She knew that whatever she did, she had to do it bewitchingly, and the effect was there. She tries to give a few photo-flash moments to her Odette as well.

Schandorff modulates from pathos to tragedy in the final scene, and Martins gives her and his son Nilas a good pas de deux to do it in. Tchaikovsky helps an awful lot, the music swells magnificently into an anguished wail. One can’t help but be affected. Nilas Martins again partnered well on short notice (I’m betting Schandorff can speak excellent English, but must have been happy for a decent partner who could speak her native tongue) and her understanding of the role sharpened his characterization a bit, too. In slightly different takes on von Rotbart, La Fosse seems to be going offstage to his death, while James Fayette and Jock Soto (other interpreters) seem to be merely vanquished. Schandorff is never as massive in her tragedy as Meunier (Meunier’s final exit is heartrending, but so is her final exit in the Élegie in Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3. This is a ballerina who knows how to make an exit) but Schandorff’s interpretation is sculpted as an organic whole, and it fits the way she is wont to dance. It makes one upset for the talented ballerinas in the company who look like they’ve just been taught the steps.

Other observations on the production: After the third volley of steps, one realizes how grueling the jester’s role is. Adam Hendrickson has wonderful elevation in the role and performs well, but the part is still egregious and I could do without it. Seeing both Gold and Hendrickson, they again both did different things in the scene change from the third to fourth scene (Gold does an entire “Blue Boy” turn complete with Ashtonian shrugs; Hendrickson merely looks off one wing and curls up to sleep) and I’m still thankful to Hendrickson for underplaying the moment. Martins’ Act I is looking better on repeated viewings – the children help it immensely. They are well drilled and charming, and their intelligent use help one to have affection for this little court with no furniture somewhere in the provinces. The third scene is still too long, but Martins’ national dances are accomplished; he has a knack with that sort of pastiche, and the Hungarian and Spanish dances are particularly good. It’s a shame the ladies in the Spanish dance are underplaying the moment when they snap open their fans, it used to be a great camp moment. Heléne Alexopoulos and either Charles Askegard or Albert Evans make a great event out of the Russian dance, even with the dissonance in design and concept (Evans has an edge here. A natural exotic, in the costume he looks as if he had stepped out of a Bakst lithograph. But again, he is too good a dancer to be consigned to the exotic periphery of the repertory and deserves to be reassessed.)

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Not that I would do anything as crass as count fouettes (always), I could'a sworn that she bailed at 27. She didn't do any doubles to confuse the count, either.

I agree with you about Evans. He's a fine, sensitive and committed dancer, and deserves to be seen more.

I perhaps wasn't quite as impressed with Schandorff as you were, but I did think of what you said about how she never stops moving in recalling that bizarre lift in the second scene, and repeated in the fourth. After Seigfried swears, by the lake, that he loves her, Odette launches herself headfirst directly at Seifried's chest, and he holds her to his chest as she remains extended, perfectly parallel to the floor, and facing it. Then he flips her over so she's lying with her back against his bent knee.

That image of Odette held up like a length of planking always seemed jarring and incongruous to me, and even dangerous. Whelan looked like a human arrow that could've easily punctured Damian Woetzal's chest. With most NYCB dancers, there's only a moment to think, "dang, that's a strange pose," then she's flipped over, and we go on our merry way.

Schandorff made some sense of this. She's flying at Seifried in a fit of joy and relief at his oath. She didn't just stretch herself out straight in this lift, but gently arched herself into a bit of a fish position, subtly undulating her arms and giving a momentary impression of flying, supported by Seigfreid's love, most likely.

I still think it's an ugly lift, but Schandorff almost made it sensible.

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Silja Schandorff was an absolute revelation yesterday, particularly in Act 1 --- she entered dancing with frantic energy, she really seemed to be The Swan, her characterization absorbing her technique, or surpassing it might be the word, or perhaps subsuming it -- in other words, she was not just dancing steps, the whole became much greater than the parts. The best single dance performance I've seen at NYCB this fall and winter. My only criticism would be that perhaps she had too little left for Act 2 -- did a previous comment say that she was more comfortable as Odette than as Odile? In any event, this ballet should move to an emotional climax at the end, and I thought Act 2 fell a little flat. But perhaps it was just weariness in the viewer, it's always so hard to say.

Switching topics somewhat, Jennie Somogyi also deserves a rave for her variation in the pas de trois. She was also very, very fine last week in Episodes, partnered by Albert Evans. She really must be made a principal dancer.

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A Postcript:

I can now illustrate one of the inevitable hazards of posting quickly. Speaking to a Danish friend, I was assured that Schandorff got no coaching other than her initial sessions with Martins. I stand corrected. If this were an article for print I would have checked that assertion before allowing it to be published, my apologies to the reader and Ms. Schandorff.

I do feel that the point made by the work is still valid. “No coaching” in Denmark still means an entirely different basis of training and dancing a repertory that contains other narrative ballets. If Schandorff worked out the role herself, more power to her. Her performance still emphasized that we have lovely ballerinas of our own, but one can’t dance a narrative ballet the same way one dances an abstract one, and in the absence of experience and repertory in which to gain it, coaching would be welcome.

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Leigh and All Others-- Based on your postscript, I went back and reread the entire line of postings from your original review onward, and I think that after five days perspective your review and thoughts about last Saturday's performance are even more "spot on" and insightful than they seemed at first.

"Little court with no furniture somewhere in the provinces" is perfect, it describes the scene to perfection. You were right about Adam Henrickson's performance. You were also right about Monique Meunier's performances last spring (by the way, why haven't we seen her all Fall and Winter now, except for two or three divertissements in the Nutcracker, early in the fall season at that -- why didn't she replace Weese and/or Kowroski when they got sick this last week?) And your main point is completely valid.

Seeing Wendy Whelan dance Odette/Odile last night (1/19, replacing Kowroski by last minute program change, presumably Maria was sick like half of the company) really underlined your point for me. Technical expertise aside, it was a performance without an animating idea, without a characterization except for the idea, apparently, that Odette should beat her arms like a bird and crane her neck every so often.

Your original point about thinking how well Schandorff must have been coached thus seems to me to have been simply another way of saying how fine a characterization animated her performance and how wonderfully she sustained this idea.

Finally, I am new to this site and neglected to introduce myself when I started a few days ago and really I'm not sure what the correct cyber-etiquette is, since I've never posted anything on the internet before. (What should one say or do on joining a new site like this one? Should one do it even if it makes one more self-conscious?) But, as to what checking up a person should do on his or her review or opinion before posting it, I wonder if one of the virtues of this semi-anonymous e-conversation with the world isn't precisely that, while written and concrete, it has also the spontaneity and tentativeness of conversation and can be changed, corrected, modified, in response to the views of others and new information. I think what I like about this is the fact that I'm not in my mind simply broadcasting narcissistic opinions -- I want response, to see my ideas and subjective impressions "bounced around" with those of others. Thanks. Michael1. (I don't know why I chose to put the silly #1 after my name, but I suppose I'm stuck with it now.)

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I would love to see Silja Schandorff in "Swan Lake". Maybe this won't be her only performance with NYCB. By the way, her partnership with Nilas Martins goes back a long way. There is a picture of the two of them dancing together in "Elverhill" (I think that's how you spell it), which is an old Danish play with music and ballet that doesn't "travel". I think they were about eight years old at the time!

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I'm glad some of you liked Schandorff. The NYTimes review, calling her "small and slight," I believe, is a huge joke in Denmark, as Silja S. is at least 5'7" and considered "too big for our stage" by some people there.

Re the coaching question, Schandorff has worked on the role herself without help. Danes say her interpretation now is completely different than at the beginning. In Copenhagen, she has a tempo that's slower than NY and which suits her style better. Michael, the sense of continuous flow of dancing was a hallmark of Danish style -- through Volkova, I think.

I put Schandorff on the web site because, when we first went online, I didn't have a scanner and so couldn't have any photos. I wanted at least one visual, and thought of putting a ballerina on every page. I had used that photo of Schandorff in "Etudes" in DanceView a few years ago, and thought the bending position would work placed atop the list of choices -- it's as though she's ushering you in, welcoming you. Also, since Schandorff wasn't known here, I thought it would be better than having a more recognized dancer, which would make the site appear to be an ABT site, or NYCB, or Royal, etc. I also think Schandorff is a marvelous dancer.


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That part of Jennifer Dunning's review which criticized her phrasing as too "staccato" was also ridiculous. Her phrasing was beautifully musical. There is a famous musical passage in Act I where a pas de deux is danced to the melody of a single violin, with a second violin or perhaps a viola joining in and adding color. Dancing to this, she flowed through her two arabesques, one to each side, concluding each with a small flourish (or further extension) of the foot which framed the step perfectly on the melody. As someone once said about Farrell, "the music was coming from her." Altogether, this was one of those performances which only gets better as one remembers it.

[This message has been edited by Michael1 (edited February 03, 2000).]

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