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Swan Lake 2013

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Well I didn't make to the Sunday night show, I was just too tired from an earlier event, and needed to get to bed early for work the next day. I'm sad about it, but I was drifting off to sleep by 8:30 and don't think I could have lasted until 10+pm at the theatre.

As Carrie was unable to perform on Sunday afternoon, I truly hope she gets to perform the Black Swan ppd at the Season Ender night. (if Doug Fullington reads this, please print this up and hand it to Peter Boal)

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As Carrie was unable to perform on Sunday afternoon, I truly hope she gets to perform the Black Swan ppd at the Season Ender night. (if Doug Fullington reads this, please print this up and hand it to Peter Boal)

Ah, that hadn't occurred to me...!

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I'm afraid it's another long one -- my apologies.

Somewhere there’s a story about Frederick Ashton to the effect that he saw some dancers he knew as he was going to a performance of Swan Lake – they asked “don’t you already know this ballet” and his response was that he was going to a private lesson with Marius Petipa. That’s part of the thrill of seeing a work you already know pretty well – it’s a chance to really dig into the material, answer questions that you might have missed on earlier viewings and play the compare and contrast game between past and present experience.

I clocked a lot of hours in the theater over the two week run of Swan Lake, but I managed to see all 5 leading couples and most of the other cast permutations. There were several important debuts as well as people coming back to familiar roles with even more insight – it was a really exciting run.

This production has roots back in Russell and Stowell’s tenure at the Frankfurt Ballet, where they started to clarify what they wanted in a Swan Lake, but they were still making alterations until they staged this version ten years ago, with the opening of the remodeled McCaw Hall. There are significant chunks of what we understand to be original choreography (or as close as we’re going to get) – the pas de trois in act I is intact, as are big parts of act II, and the big duets. Stowell was pretty faithful to the style of the work in his own contributions – it has a very coherent feel.

The set, one of Ming Cho Lee’s big projects, is still quite handsome, but the symbolic aspects of it are feeling dated to me. The architectural elements (columns, walls, doors) all tilt to stage right several degrees, for a pretty obvious “something’s amiss” message. This isn’t too disturbing in the first act, where there are just a few columns, giving it a kind of ruined temple vibe, but when we get to the third act, the curtain opens on a huge upstage wall of windows, all leaning over, I automatically think “Titanic.” Although most of Paul Tazewell’s costumes have held up well, a couple of them could use updating too. The Queen and Von Rothbart both cross the line between theatrical and over the top, especially in their headgear. Her crown in act III is a traditional shape, but is so large it seems truly fake, while Von Rothbart’s tall fur shako combines with his elaborate black and silver costume to make him look more like a lead singer in a Kiss cover band than a potent sorcerer.

Carrie Imler, Carla Korbes, and Kaori Nakamura have all performed in this production before, and each one got further along in their development of the role with this run. Imler’s technical expertise is so highly developed that I think sometimes she doesn’t get full marks for her dramatic skills. While she is indeed a formidable technician, she uses that skill for a purpose – she reminded me of Cynthia Gregory, who articulated the distinction between swan and woman so deftly in her work. Both she and Nakamura give what I think of as highly formal performances, in that they have form and shape – both dancers have thought through this role and made choices about the kind of person she is, the kind of motivations she has, the kind of action and reaction she displays in her world – while there are many differences in their characterization and phrasing, they both give very three-dimensional, highly developed performances. Carla Korbes’ performances are equally rich in detail, but feel much more intuitive in her choices and preparation. I had a long conversation with a friend about the difference between Korbes and Nakamura’s performance, and the gist of it came down to self-knowledge – Nakamura’s Odile chooses to deceive Siegfried, chooses to imitate Odette in order to deceive him, and then chooses to expose this trick in a way calculated to cause him the most grief – Korbes’ Odile does all those things, but for her, they seem like a natural process. Nakamura chooses to act, while Korbes just acts. I noticed some of this in their performances of the Maillot Romeo et Juliette, and I seem to still see it here.

Maria Chapman and Leslie Rausch both gave debut performances, and each one got much further than just “getting through the choreography.” Rausch danced with Bakthurel Bold, who brought all of his experience to bear on their shared scenes – he gave her really great support and she just bloomed. Her Odette is hesitant with Siegfried, but self-assured with her swans – you can see the princess in her. In act II, when the two of the stand opposite each other, each in front of their individual groups it’s clear that they are co-equals in status – he’s the prince of these hunters and she’s the queen of the swans. They parlay to establish the peace. In the third act, she’s like a director (come here, go there, stop, now start) -- she collaborates with Von Rothbart, and takes pleasure in the process. Chapman danced with Jerome Tisserand, who was also making a debut as the prince. Both of them found some great moments in the ballet, but some of the connecting phrases were less impressive. In general, Chapman’s Odette was more fully realized in her first outing, which I thought was curious since she’s given such great performances as sexy girls in the past (Rosaline in the R et J is just one example) – I understand that her second performance was much stronger all round.

Tisserand has great innate instincts as Siegfried – I don’t know if it’s part of his training or just something he brings himself, but his “inner prince” was very clearly defined. As Stowell has staged the first act, Siegfried moves between being the prince on his own, and acting as a partner in larger group dances. It’s tricky to follow along with those changes in status – when is he the prince and when is he the fourth guy out of six? Tisserand manages those transitions quite well, as does Karel Cruz, who was Siegfried to Korbes’ Odette/Odile. Cruz would stand out anyway – his height makes him the automatic center of the group – but that combines with a very smooth style. His turns are particularly lush – multiple rotations seemingly without effort, often decelerating to a clean stop while still in passé releve. He doesn’t really play Siegfried as a youth in the energetic or awkward way, but he conveys a real sense of true passion in his work with Odette – love takes him by surprise. Seth Orza is Nakamura’s third Siegfried at PNB – she originally danced this with Olivier Wevers and then with Lucien Postelwaite. Both Wevers and Postelwaite come from the innate school of princes, while Orza has a more naturalistic appearance in the role – you get the sense that when his mother tells him it’s time to marry, he is apprehensive about stepping into that formal world. His passion for Odette comes in part from the fact that she is not a formal young lady like the group of marriageable princesses he is supposed to choose from in the third act. Nakamura’s Odile is like a hypnotist as she manipulates his affection and controls his attention – she has him exactly where she wants him at every moment.

This is the 40th anniversary for the company, so they’ve been having some former dancers come back as guests, which is how Carrie Imler came to be dancing with Casey Herd. I was curious to see how he was looking now that he’s dancing with the Dutch company, but a strained calf muscle kept him constrained – he was an able partner, but didn’t venture to dance any of the showcase work from the role. Indeed, he was so disabled that Peter Boal came out in front of the curtain at the end of the second act to say that Bakthurel Bold would take his place – he gave a much more dramatic performance of the third act than he had earlier in the previous weekend with Rausch, which was all the more remarkable for it being a last-minute substitution. But just when we got used to seeing him, Herd came back for act IV. Bold didn’t even get a curtain call at the end of the show, which I thought was too bad – he’d done yeoman work and deserved the recognition.

There were multiple casts in almost all parts – this production makes good use of the whole ensemble. Both Kiyon Gaines and Ezra Thomson gave highly detailed performances of Wolfgang, the prince’s tutor. Paul Gibson originated this role, and had a very suave interpretation – his job was to help guide Siegfried as he chose a bride, and he wasn’t overly concerned that his student find a romantic match. There’s a moment in the first act (in this production, he’s only seen in act I) where he dances with a group of young women, first one by one, and then with all of them at once – it always makes me think of the song from the operetta The Red Mill -- “Every Day is Ladies Day with Me.” Gaines and Thomson are still feeling responsible for the process, but are much more affected in their approach – if Gibson could be described as classic, then Gaines and Thomson would be baroque, with multiple flourishes and complex curves in their port de bras. They both emphasize the off-center, tipsy aspect of the character, and each got multiple laughs for their trouble.

Jonathan Porretta’s Jester is still dead on – he takes a technical challenge and makes it into a characterization. Benjamin Griffiths has danced this role before as well – as you might imagine he gives a slightly sunnier interpretation, with great ease in the expansive gestures. Kyle Davis is also coming back to the role, making big strides in his phrasing and his acting. He’s always been able to do the tricks, but with these performances, he makes dramatic use of the fancy stuff – it was a pleasure to see the changes.

The pas de trois is from the gutbusting part of the Petipa repertory – like the peasant pas de deux in Giselle, it’s a great place to see people take up a pure classical test. I saw several permutations of casting, and missed a couple more – it looked like everyone was getting a chance to bring their skills to the challenge over the run. Porretta looked great (as you would expect), especially coming out of the pirouette into the grand ronde de jambe – he had the coordination of arm and leg working really well, and his final manege had height and rhythm, which is a great combination. Rachel Foster and Margaret Mullin did some wonderful work in the alternating parts, especially in the ultra-challenging pointework, which is so hard to make dancey. Leta Biasucci and Liora Neuville were a matched pair, dancing with Griffiths – Neuville is the flirtier of the two women, but I really admired Biasucci in the tour jete sequence in the coda – she took a long series of grueling jumps and, like the pointework, made it swing.

I really love the czardas, and am always interested in seeing who gets the lead parts. The costumes are lovely, with a pleated underskirt for both the man and the woman that flashes out with their first battement front. They wear bright red boots and just smolder as they stride through the space. Jessika Anspach seemed to relish each opportunity, dancing it with Tisserand. She’s always fun to watch as she shifts from part to part during the run – she’s a princess, a party guest, and of course a swan, as well as leading the czardas, and she’s having a wonderful time throughout. Mullin and Gaines, along with Emma Love and Sean Rollofson really take the parts seriously – it’s a pleasure to see them.

Stowell’s Neopolitan duet owes a great deal to Balanchine’s Tarantella, and it got several really good performances. Mullin and Gaines flipped from the czardas for it, Foster and Griffiths really zipped through the technical tricks, Angelica Generosa gave a great performance with Rollofson, but I think maybe the zestiest pair was Biasucci with Price Suddarth. By the time they were done I was ready to vote that PNB get the Balanchine work in repertory for them – they made all the commedia bits seem truly fresh.

Stowell’s “Persian” variation (which he made to the Russian music) is a close cousin to the Peacock in his Nutcracker – it sits very close to an Orientalist point of view, and honestly, can look a little kitschy unless it’s danced very seriously. Kylee Kitchens and Lindsi Dec both do excellent work with it, but Laura Gilbreath actually makes it seem like the inevitable choice – she has a wonderful sense of stillness that gives her a very regal sense. At some point, she’ll exchange her belly-dancer outfit for Odette’s costume and I think she’ll give a very compelling performance. Until then, I’m glad to see her in the harem pants.

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I had a long conversation with a friend about the difference between Korbes and Nakamura’s performance, and the gist of it came down to self-knowledge – Nakamura’s Odile chooses to deceive Siegfried, chooses to imitate Odette in order to deceive him, and then chooses to expose this trick in a way calculated to cause him the most grief – Korbes’ Odile does all those things, but for her, they seem like a natural process. Nakamura chooses to act, while Korbes just acts.

That’s fascinating, sandik. Do I understand you correctly that Nakamura’s and Korbes’ characters both make the same choices, but that Nakamura chooses to show Odile thinking through those choices, while as Korbes portrays her she seems to make them instinctively? Very interesting.

Thank you for writing such a detailed review.

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These are my observations about the performances -- I don't want to imply that I have inside information about how these dancers approach their work. From my perspective, sitting in the audience, I feel that Nakamura's performances have very clear moments that are presented almost deliberately, while Korbes seems to move through a more fluid series of decisions made at the moment. In fact I'm sure that both artists have thought deeply about their role -- these are just the ways I see those ideas played out on stage.

There's a good example of this in their performances as Juliet, earlier in the season. In Maillot's version of the ballet, the balcony is actually a ramp, rather like a playground slide, and Juliet sits on it to watch Romeo dance. During Romeo's solo, Nakamura is very still, as she focuses her attention (and therefore ours as well) on Romeo -- he is fascinating to her, and so to us. In the same section, Korbes can barely stay seated -- she is almost squirming with excitement. Nakamura's choice here is a theatrically sophisticated one, while Korbes feels more naturalistic.

I could be 'reading in' with these ideas, but it's fascinating to watch different approaches to the same role.

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