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Birdsall

Orlando Ballet's Swan Lake

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I write this review with some reluctance, but I felt I needed to write it so that artistic directors of regional companies would not commit such a blunder in the future. I attended Orlando Ballet with lowered expectations. This was a regional company that is probably struggling to stay afloat in difficult times for arts in America. So I went really wanting to like and enjoy what I saw, and I think the dancers gave their all. I knew what I was going to see would not be the Mariinsky or even ABT.

What I am saying is that I attended really, really on Orlando Ballet's side. I wanted to enjoy it. Back in 2007 I saw a very decent Swan Lake by the same company. Back then the artistic director was Bruce Marks who had taken over after Fernando Bujones' death. I only attended the company sporadically back then since I lived in Tampa at the time. My memory is that the Orlando Ballet presented a very beautiful and decent rendition of Swan Lake. It was regional ballet but still put a smile on your face. The Swan Lake magic was still there.

Last night I entered the new Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center's Walt Disney Theater (my first time in this new theater which was miraculously built during the economic downturn) to see huge speakers and an empty orchestra pit. That was disappointing because a live orchestra is always what we want to see especially for classical ballet, and in 2007 there had been a live orchestra. BUT I thought, "No problem. As long as the dancing is good I can deal with canned music...."

So the ballet started and during the overture you saw the Queen give the Prince his crossbow and SUDDENLY Act 1 Scene 2 (in some versions Act 2) started!!!!! Yes, you heard right. Act 1 was deleted. Absolutely no Act 1. The overture went directly to the white swan scene!!! Later to my utter shock I was to view the Act 1 pas de trois inserted into the black swan scene!!!! Basically, forget Tchaikovsky's gorgeous waltzes in Act 1......what I saw last night was more like "Excerpts of Swan Lake rearranged".....

The recording used skipped a lot in the first scene so before all the swans came on there was a long pause to fix that problem. That actually didn't even bother me. Notice how I kept trying to find positives. Canned music. Okay, I can handle that. Recording skipping. No problem. The dancers did not react and kept dancing. Very professional of them.

But chopping off Act 1 is for me a shocking act. So I just now googled Orlando Ballet and Swan Lake and found an online interview in which Robert Hill (Artistic Director) said that audiences today do not sit through 5 hour long ballets. This is bizarre to say the least. Swan Lake is only about 2 hours (not counting intermission). It is NOT a long ballet. It does not need to be cut. People sit through 2 hour movies today!!!! People still through Wagner's Ring Cycle which includes 5 hour operas. What is he talking about????? He proudly discussed how they tell the story during the overture to get it out of the way and cut directly to the swan scene. So I googled his bio thinking this must be a business man who has no true love of ballet, and to my shock he was a dancer at ABT, NYCB, etc. and a choreographer. How could he do this to Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and Ivanov?????? How can anyone with a serious career in ballet do this to Swan Lake?

It gets worse......for those of you who hate the Jester in Swan Lake (and I have read Ballet Alert long enough to know that EVERYONE except for me hates the Jester), well, there wasn't just one jester. There were TWO Jesters, and their choreography had them falling and jumping over each other and rolling on the ground.

The choice of national dances was a bit unusual (Neapolitan, Russian, and then the Act 1 pas de trois.....no Spanish, no Hungarian, no Mazurka), but that I can even handle, although the pas de trois showing up was weird.

I seriously felt like I was on Candid Camera.

To her credit Chiaki Yasukawa danced a very nice Odette and great Odile (going way beyond 32 fouettes) while this catastrophe was going on around her. She did fall after her variation almost in the wings, but falls happen to the best dancers.

The rest of the cast threw themselves into their roles and did their best. If it were just for the dancing I would have given this company an overall thumbs up and this would be a more flattering review, but I have to honestly say that if I were on the Board of Directors I think I would be lobbying hard for Robert Hill's dismissal. I place all blame of this catastrophe on his shoulders. I don't think I will ever see the likes of this again. This did not present Orlando Ballet as a serious ballet company. It desecrated a great classical work. The whole thing was just plain shocking.

I think if there are not resources to present Swan Lake, a company like this should present and advertise, "Excerpts from Swan Lake" and rehearse them well. Or stick to modern works. This experience was very disheartening for ballet in America. I have a Russian friend coming to visit me, and I would be ashamed to take him to this production.

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I noticed they listed the running time as "1 hr 50 minutes including intermission" and wondered how the heck they did that.

I have heard from another artistic director of a small company that the theatres in the small towns they tour to (which are the bread and butter of their existence)have this "in and out in under 2 hours" rule, so wonder if Orlando is constrained by the same demands.

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If that is the case I think it would have been better to present "excerpts" billed as excepts. Maybe the white swan act and black swan pas de deux on a double bill with some other short ballet.

The contrast between Orlando Ballet's 2007 Swan Lake and its 2015 Swan Lake was like night and day. To me it was like watching a spoof of Swan Lake or a Laurel and Hardy version. I am still in a state of shock. I think you have to really work hard to ruin Swan Lake in this way!!!!

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The Mariinsky version at BAM ran three hours and ten minutes.

Understand that I say this as someone who 1) doesn't much like Swan Lake in the first place and 2) resents the amount of oxygen it continues to suck out of ballet's room. If the version you're watching has abandoned all pretense of storytelling, as both the Mariinsky's Sergeyev version and NYCB's Martins version pretty much have, for example, the first act is practically meaningless as theater. Lots of pretty music, lots of pretty dancing, but if it's not telling us something about Prince Siegfried, his world, and the limitations of both -- i.e., setting up the meaning of the lakeside scenes -- it serves no dramatic purpose. If I were an AD and had to stage a two-hour version for whatever reason (and kbarber has pointed out a not-implausible one), the first thing I'd go after with my pruning shears would be Act I.

I'm not saying Hill made the right choices in terms of what he elected to cut and / or rearrange or that his version wasn't the disaster you describe, but as someone who has seen quite a few dispensable versions of Act I, I'm not so shocked. (And wasn't the original variously cut, expanded, re-arranged, to accommodate various demands during its creators' lifetimes?)

What I am perturbed about is the idea that one must cater to the alleged deficiencies of the audience's attention span. I understand accommodating the realities of modern life -- there are any number of reasons why three plus hours at the theater might be tough for someone with a family or a job to pull off -- but it does the audience a disservice to assume that they are incapable of sitting in rapt attention for a few hours.

I suppose the question is why do Swan Lake at all if you can't do the whole thing? Well, it puts butts in seats like no other ballet not called The Nutcracker and it makes your company look legitimate. And Hill may genuinely believe he's given his audience the whole story, not just the highlights reel.

But two jesters is absolutely the last straw!

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If that is the case I think it would have been better to present "excerpts" billed as excepts. Maybe the white swan act and black swan pas de deux on a double bill with some other short ballet.

The contrast between Orlando Ballet's 2007 Swan Lake and its 2015 Swan Lake was like night and day. To me it was like watching a spoof of Swan Lake or a Laurel and Hardy version. I am still in a state of shock. I think you have to really work hard to ruin Swan Lake in this way!!!!

Birdsall, I feel your pain, but you know very well that "excerpts" and mixed bill evenings just don't sell like one story ballet, as Kathleen points out, and most of the market for Swan Lake are not hard-core balletomanes. Everyone agrees the white acts and the black swan pdd are the highlight.

Balanchine's version is one act, with music from Acts II and IV, and yet it is billed as "Swan Lake" on the NYCB website.

I agree with Kathleen that the assumption about audience attention span is sad (when you think most hockey games go 2 1/2-3 hours, and no one says, "We should get rid of the third period!), but there may also be other considerations in the small theatres (cost of providing stage crew, ushers, etc. maybe?)

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The Mariinsky (Sergeyev version) runs 3 hours 10 minutes due to 2 half hour intermissions. I have many recordings of it without the intermissions and have also seen it live. The actual ballet by the Mariinsky without intermissions is a little over 2 hours.....2 hours 10 minutes probably at the most. I think most ballets are this long or longer not including intermission. And almost all operas are even longer. So I found Robert Hill's comments that people are not willing to sit for 5 hours at a show to be a strange comment. Swan Lake is not long. I think almost ALL shows that people attend (even Broadway or concerts) are usually approx. 3 hours when you include intermissions.

I am not being argumentative but trying to show my love of the Mariinsky version when I say the following:

I think there is a lot of information given to the audience even in the Sergeyev Mariinsky version even without much mime. It sets up the story. We see a carefree prince partying away when he should be studying and the Queen is not overly happy when she arrives and sees "playing" in progress and a tutor asleep. She also presents him with his crossbow and that sets up the next scene. It is also telling that everyone begins to dance again the minute the Queen leaves. That says, "We're still going to do what we want even though we got into mild trouble!" To me his carefree life is in complete contrast to how he falls for Odette in the next scene. Also, as a side note, the Jester is trying to win over one of the prince's friends and chases her and is excited to get a kiss from her near the end (which is why I actually like the Jester in the Mariinsky version.....there is a story all its own).....

Plus, the gorgeous music and dancing that only Vaganova grads are capable of.....that for me is so important in Act 1.....it puts me in ecstasy. The Mariinsky corps at one point does this thing where the males and females take turns standing tall while the other sex stoops low, and I have heard the original Swan Lake had the girls getting up on step stools. This is probably a holdover from that. And to me it also mirrors how the little swans and big swans do a similar thing later in the white swan scene.

I consider the Mariinsky/Sergeyev version the caviar version of Swan Lake despite some flaws many people find in it. I think it gets the mood and beauty of Swan Lake just right and creates a swoon effect.

With all this said, I did not expect the Mariinsky. I went expecting a regional company that did their best to present a great ballet. I assumed a regional company would not have the sheer numbers of dancers to fill the stage with a big corps in Act 1 and then again in Act 2 (or Act 1 Scene 2 depending on version). I expected less swans, less people in Act 1, etc. In 2007 I was not disappointed. Last night I was and mainly due to what I consider poor choices on the artistic director's part. But I am sure you both are right about needing to use Swan Lake to put butts in seats. I just think this inadvertently made Orlando Ballet look really bad to anyone with even moderate experience with Swan Lake, but the audience did clap at the end. So who knows?

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It sounds like the approach Boito and Verdi took to "Othello" to create an "Otello" that wouldn't be as long as "Die Gotterdammerung" by dropping the first act and having the singers describe the Act I action in the love duet. Having two theatrical geniuses more than helped.

Are they doing the long reconstruction of "Sleeping Beauty" at the Mariinsky? No, the dancers don't like it. I don't know if it ran long enough to determine if the audiences would have, once it was no longer a novelty. Look at what Balanchine did to different pieces of music: first leaving a movement out of "Serenade," then adding it back on the wrong order, changing the shape and character of the work. He rearranged the order of the Tchaikovsky for "Mozartiana, he chopped movements off of music like in "Scotch Symphony," and he dropped a movement (or two?) from the Mendelssohn string symphony he used for the "A Midsummer Night's Dream" Divertissement and edited out the center of the adagio movement, which changes character. He changed his "Swan Lake" Act II selections around several times, cutting, adding, and replacing. The Bolshoi chopped off a big chunk of the last Act of "Le Corsaire" to fit it into union time at the Kennedy Center.

I'm guessing many people in the audience either didn't care if the ballet was shorter and jumped into the heart of the matter or read the website before the show or a preview and knew what was coming. I'm not sure if this a new approach for the company, or if recent repeat audiences knew what to expect going in. Orlando Ballet doesn't have scores of Vaganova graduates to perform the Act I dances, nor a bunch of aristocrats who needed time to settle in: there are 21 dancers and four apprentices in the company, plus students in the school. I would go in wanting to see how they were going to pull it off.

Hill had to use his resources wisely to attempt it altogether, "Swan Lake" sells, and many people know the gist of Act going in. If you don't have a lot of people, Act I is the logical act to shorten or cut out. The inclusion of the pas de trois in Act III is interesting, because, musically, it's of similar character as the first Black Swan PDD music that was changed and which Balanchine used for "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux." It could easily fly as a dance presented by Siegfried's friends as a tribute to him on his birthday, bringing on some of the softness of the original.

I've long felt that the Dance of the Four Cygnettes right after the White Swan PDD is a colossal mistake in tone. Even if it didn't look quirky or funny to current audiences, it's an upbeat applause machine right after one of the most moving sections in all ballet and changes the mood and the audience's pulse, only to ask the audience to return to somber mood again right afterwards. I've also thought that it was suspicious that Odette and von Rothbart show up alone. If I were putting on "Swan Lake," their entrance would be preceeded by an entourage of four black swan sweeping in to present them, and the Dance of the Four Cygnettes would be the warm-up for the Black Swan PDD. So it's good that I'll never direct "Swan Lake."

The core audience might not need truth in advertising, but from what you described, Birdsall, what they presented wasn't excerpts, which are stand-alone selections, usually without transitions between them, but an abridged, "Reader's Digest" version.

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You have to include the intermissions when you're calculating costs for front-of-house and stage crew staff though (and musicians, though there were none in this case).

Nutcracker is barely 2 hours including its intermission.

Ballets like Swan Lake and Coppelia (which I see is Orlando's other full-length offering) attract a children's audience, and I think you'd be hard put to find a kiddies' show that goes on for 3 hours incl intermissions, let alone more than 3 hours.

Many 19th century ballets WERE originally five hours long (Don Q, for one). So maybe Robert Hill's comment was truncated so that it seemed he was talking about modern productions when in fact he was referring to the originals.

(I have no personal connection to Orlando Ballet or Robert Hill, just pointing these things out).

How much were tix, by the way?

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Personally I do like full length ballets to be part of ballet's repertory -- though I don't always think they are the best choice for smaller companies with smaller budgets -- and Swan Lake done thoughtfully is one of ballet's greatest achievements. I certainly can't pretend to be shocked that it gets hacked about in a small "regional" company's production, because it even gets hacked about in large, world-class companies' productions. But, still, I find it hard to picture this degree of hacking, in the name of a full length "Swan Lake" as anything other than unfortunate.

Act I not important? Not worth sitting through? The whole magic of the lake scene is set up in contrast to the world of Act I (that's one reason I don't like added "prologues" that set up Rothbart's transformation of Odette before Act I). The idea that a production is a "full length" Swan Lake without Act I--even a truncated Act I which would be more understandable--seems peculiar to me. Like Helene, I would call this version "abridged." But that's not exactly a compliment. (Getting rid of that many character dances strikes me as unfortunate too...I forbear asking about Act IV.)

In the "old" days: dancing Act II on its own was not uncommon. That's what was announced, and that's what you saw. Mixed programs were the norm and audiences were thought to find all the frameworks to balletic vision scenes (mime especially) boring. But if people, today, really love "full length" ballets, then what exactly is the point of reducing those ballets to dance highlights reels?--indeed to something like what we got on mixed bills of old (even if one narrative ostensibly strings them together)? I know the answers that have been raised: theaters that require productions to stay within "two hours" "audience attention spans" "Act I is just waiting for Odette" etc. Unfortunately, as others have noted, these aren't really artistic/critical answers (except the last which, as noted above, I don't agree with). Ironically, it almost starts to sound like audience don't like full length ballets--they just think they do.

I remember Hill as a dancer with ABT. I saw him dance Siegfried once. I also saw one of the works he choreographed for ABT. I don't doubt his committment to ballet as an art form and I don't doubt he has huge challenges running a regional ballet company on a miniscule budget and under much less than ideal conditions. It's fantastic to read his company has a good Odette/Odile and he doubtless needs productions that are likely to sell tickets. And, most importantly: if competently danced, then Swan Lake Act II exposes his audience to some of ballet's greatest beauties. Those are big pluses...

Still, for my taste: why not announce "Swan Lake 'highlights'" or "Highlights from Swan Lake?" -heck you can even put "highlights" in small print and "Swan Lake" in big print. (Someone mentioned that the Balanchine distillation of the lake scenes is called "Swan Lake;" true--but it always appears on a mixed bill with other ballets. It also dates back to an era when just Act II was the norm not the exception.)

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Helene,

I can agree with some of your comments about chopping things and rearranging, I guess (it has been going on since Swan Lake existed), but not the Othello/Otello one. That is comparing apples and oranges, in my opinion. When a book is made into a movie, the movie is a totally different work of art. People complain like crazy when a movie version is not just like the book that they read, but the movie director is actually making a new work of art "based" on the book. Same with Verdi/Boito when they created an opera. They created a new work of art "based" on Shakespeare's play, so having changes is actually expected in that situation.

What happened last night is comparable, in my opinion, to attending a Shakespeare play sold as a Shakespeare play and deleting an act. I doubt if any Shakespeare lovers would be happy with that. Of course, maybe this actually happens. I have no idea.

And I did go in wondering how they were going to pull this off and with good memories of a previous Swan Lake and planned to expect fewer swans, fewer everything. I was prepared for a small company doing its best and failing to live up to international standards but at least having a love and respect for Swan Lake. I was simply hoping for a "That was decent for a small, regional" company experience. What I saw, in my own personal opinion, was a travesty. To me it was impossible to get up and leave, because it was like watching a car wreck. You had to be there. It was like watching a spoof of Swan Lake, so there was some humor in it, therefore, entertaining in a bizarre way.

Last time they did Swan Lake they actually called it "Swans: Black and White" because the Black Swan movie had just had a success. I think it was maybe 2012 or so. I saw the Orlando Ballet do a more normal Swan Lake in 2007 and loved it. I skipped the "Swans Black and White" because it sounded junky and silly. I knew I would hate it. This season they announced "Swan Lake" and so I thought they were going back to a more "normal" Swan Lake. I lowered my expectations, but apparently I did not lower them anywhere near enough.

A few weeks ago I actually attended a touring Russian company (The Voronezh State Ballet that tours as the State Ballet Theatre of Russia), and I lowered expectations b/c I had read some negative reviews here on Ballet Alert, but I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it even though it was definitely a regional style Russian company. I would definitely see them again. So I can lower expectations and have a wonderful time. I do not need the "best" Swan Lake or an "international level" Swan Lake to enjoy Swan Lake. They danced to canned music also, by the way.

Kbarber,

Orlando Ballet, by the way, does have a version (*The Swan Princess*) specifically geared toward children and families that is one hour long, so the evening Swan Lakes billed as Swan Lake, I assumed, were geared for adults/general public. Maybe I was wrong. I feel like this Swan Lake was directed at people who have zero knowledge of Swan Lake.

I understand including intermissions when thinking of timing and costs. I think it is quite possible that they had to come in under 2 hours, as you suggested, but I was just responding to the fact that Swan Lake is not over 3 hours exactly. I meant to only say it is not really a long ballet. It is not a 3 hour ballet without intermissions, but with intermissions it is. I personally think they should have cut the character dances if they wanted to cut anything. But that is my opinion and each person will have a different opinion.

My tickets were $108.75.....I think there were all ranges of prices.

I really, really hate to give a bad review of a regional company because I know how hard it is for the arts to thrive in the U.S., but I have to say I was sort of speechless after last night. I couldn't believe it.

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Black Swan/White Swan is often gala fare: one PDD followed by the other. "Swan Lake Act II" is done a lot less frequently than the Pdd completely out of context. Sometimes Act III is performed alone, or more than just Black Swan PDD.

I see your point about Otello/Othello, but there are movie remakes that veer from the original, and about Shakespeare or Swan Lake, changing the ending to be happy veers from the text, as did the tradition in England during certain eras of performing Shakespeare and launching into someone else's prose and poetry was robust. Shakespeare gets cut, just like there are cuts in operas.

I'm not arguing that Orlando Ballet's production was any good. I don't think simply the choice of cutting Act I was as tragic as some productions of ballets that I've seen that are presenting what they are positing as the real thing, and the audience gets the contrast between lakeside and court through Acts II and Acts III. I think it's critical to show in any production that it's not just his birthday, but that his mother wants him to marry, but he doesn't.

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From what I heard when Orlando Ballet did "Swans: Black and White" it was done as a full-length Swan Lake in 2012. Not sure what was different about it.

Maybe they added black swans all night long and that was the only change. No idea. I didn't go.

For all I know maybe what I saw last night was the exact same version they did when they staged it as "Swans: Black and White".....if so, I wish it had been called "Swans: Black and White" once again, b/c I think I would have stayed home.

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Act I not important? Not worth sitting through? The whole magic of the lake scene is set up in contrast to the world of Act I (that's one reason I don't like added "prologues" that set up Rothbart's transformation of Odette before Act I). The idea that a production is a "full length" Swan Lake without Act I--even a truncated Act I which would be more understandable--seems peculiar to me. Like Helene, I would call this version "abridged." But that's not exactly a compliment. (Getting rid of that many character dances strikes me as unfortunate too...I forbear asking about Act IV.)

Yes, there should definitely be something to set up the lakeside scenes! I'm just not convinced that one needs every bar of music or every step of dancing traditionally presented in Act I to do so. One does need more than the presentation of the crossbow, however. What do we need? First, some exposition. I think the critical takeaway is this: it's the Prince's birthday, which is not simply an excuse for a party, but rather the moment at which he is expected to embrace full manhood. In his hierarchical society -- at the top of which sits his mother, the embodiment of its authority -- that means taking a wife, which the Prince has absolutely no interest in doing.

But just as important, there needs to be a marked difference in theatrical texture between court and lakeside. They have to look and feel like two different worlds. I think cramming Act I full of dancing! dancing! and yet more dancing! -- especially dancing on pointe -- actually defeats that. If it were up to me, especially if I were doing an abbreviated version, I might reserve the pointe work for Odette, Odile, and the Swans just to make it clear that these women are absolutely, categorically unlike any others the Prince has met or ever will meet. But that's me. (Reserving tutus for the Swans is at least a step in the right direction.) So, I think a short, expository Act I would be just fine.

I think there is a lot of information given to the audience even in the Sergeyev Mariinsky version even without much mime. It sets up the story. We see a carefree prince partying away when he should be studying and the Queen is not overly happy when she arrives and sees "playing" in progress and a tutor asleep. She also presents him with his crossbow and that sets up the next scene. It is also telling that everyone begins to dance again the minute the Queen leaves. That says, "We're still going to do what we want even though we got into mild trouble!" To me his carefree life is in complete contrast to how he falls for Odette in the next scene. Also, as a side note, the Jester is trying to win over one of the prince's friends and chases her and is excited to get a kiss from her near the end (which is why I actually like the Jester in the Mariinsky version.....there is a story all its own).....

Honestly, I took away none of this from last Friday's performance at BAM. The Mariinsky production is flat out the most gorgeous one I've seen, but I don't think storytelling is one of its strengths, especially for an audience that's not steeped in this ballet and its traditions.

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