Tuesday, February 15, 2011


By Mary Sheeran

            My first glimpse this past Friday of Sara Mearns as Odette in Peter Martins’ Swan Lake at New York City Ballet took my breath away, for with her nonexisteant spine and lyricism that took to the air, she conveyed both dignity and suffering. This Odette is no victim, although she has been victimized, for while her body has been trapped into a swan’s form for most of the day by the evil sorcerer Von Rotbart, her heart is still open.

            This I received from Mearns in but a moment, and that signaled to us in the audience that we were about to witness an extraordinary performance, one thought through with intelligence and then beautifully executed. We were to be privileged to share not only great dance but great feeling and great love for what is a great art in a great ballet. I prefer my special effects to be of human accomplishment, and for those of that persuasion, this was a performance to evoke tears of joy.

            That may sound like an awful lot to expect after a moment, but we were not disappointed.

            When Odette meets Prince Siegfried (Jared Angle), their dance together is tender, with both being mindful of the other, even between the lines so to speak. Odette’s swoons are as sigh inducing as those in George Balanchine’s Symphony in C, one of the great romantic roles of the repertory. Mearns has learned her lessons from Balanchine’s distillations. She has the theatrical gifts for a rich portrayal along with to-die-for phrasing to dance this most challenging role in the romantic ballet repertory. Her heart is open to this sweet prince. She is not conniving for her freedom, she is responding to her heart, which, despite her situation, remains courageously open.

            Mearns’ Odile, on the other hand, does not swoon unless she wills it, and her spine is strong and unyielding. Mearns’ dancing here was precise and cool, like an above it all coloratura. Even her footwork, always precise, seemed to change shape with the different characters. Odile is experienced in her allure, and she’s doing Von Rotbart’s bidding – what their relationship is, who knows? (It does not look like father/daughter here.) At some point, Odile gives Prince Siegfried one look that made me wonder if his sweetness had won her over, but Von Rotbart is in control here.    
Once back in the forest (there seems to be no lake in this production, at least not visible from the left orchestra), Mearns is the betrayed Odette, despairing and still longing. When Siegfried arrives to beg forgiveness, Mearns at first flees him, and to watch her quick and frightened movements is to be reminded of a bird trying to get away from the human who tries to catch her. But her open heart wins out, and she forgives him. When they irrevocably lose each other because of his terrible error, and she remains a swan, we are moved because this ending (which many carp about), seems real and right, even if terrible. The spell remains even with Von Rotbart’s death, for the Prince’s pledges still hold meaning, despite his mistake being made in all innocence.

            In all of this, Sara Mearns is superlative.

            And the others are not far behind in a production highlighting a large cast that includes very young students from the School of American Ballet (sometimes cloyingly irritating in their ubiquity).

            Jared Angle’s prince is both lyrical and sweet. There’s very little bravura attitude here. As he dances with Odile (“No! Stop! You fool! Can’t you tell that’s not her?” – I genuinely cared what happened to him), I couldn’t help but think this was the Siren and the Prodigal Son again, for except for that brief hesitating look (did I really see that?), he was a goner.

            Daniel Ulbricht had all the male bravura in his role as Jester. I don’t remember this role being all that important; this guy seemed to be running the kingdom. I thought his costume ugly (I thought most of Act I looked pretty horrible), but perhaps the Jester’s ubiquitousness (along with some – you’ve got to be kidding – little jesters) is there to provide relief from all the Danish melancholy on the set, and also – I thought this later – as both a way to emphasize the prince’s youth, sweetness, and innocence and to balance off Von Rotbart, played with Dick Cheney-like dignity by the marvelous Albert Evans. Most of the Rotbarts I’ve seen have looked silly to me, even the one in Balanchine’s one-act version – all that arm waving. Evans seemed more believable, not because of his dashing cape with bright orange lining (yes, there was a lot of orange on stage), which he swooshed around to great effect, but because of his very dignified manner, like a prince or a king; he sat with the Queen comfortably enough. Even so, his character was a puzzle. Why does he seem to lure the prince to the swan princesses in the first act – what’s the point of luring Siegfried and then tricking him with Odile? Well,this is Swan Lake, not Double Indemnity and maybe it’s something that doesn’t need to be spelled out but can remain a mystery. Or maybe I’m being nice.

            Others in the large cast are quite good. Anthony Huxley replaced Sean Suozzi as Benno, the prince’s friend. At first, he seemed a little nervous, and I could almost hear him counting. Then he smiled, and he danced sweetly with smooth phrasing.

            I haven’t seen Swan Lake in a while, and my memory has the Act II divertissements (the traditional national character dances) leading up to the entrance of Odile and Von Rotbart, but that’s not what happened here. Those two enter early, Von Rotbart makes himself at home, and Odile and Siegfried go off stage.  That seemed strange.

            Anyway. Martins added a pas de quatre to the Act II divertissements, or the traditional national character dances (Quick: What’s a Neopolitan?). I haven’t the faintest idea what this foursome was doing in the hall, with lovely but anachronistic costumes, but this dance showed Martins at his strength of “interesting combinations of steps”  - his misinterpretation of Balanchine’s ironic definition of choreography—and also showcased the dancers. It was like a little set piece, all to itself, with a little wry humor and a bravura “finale” all nicely rendered by Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Abi Stafford, and Joaquin de Luz. The three plus one combination assured a quote from Apollo, and by George, there was one.

            It was nice to see Ask La Cour; he and Rachel Rutherford acquitted themselves well in the Hungarian Dance as did Janie Taylor and Sébastien Marcovici in the rather strangely costumed Russian dance. The four cygnets looked pained.

            I didn’t think I’d like this production; Martins’ Sleeping Beauty appalled me, and I deliberately stayed away for years. It opened as I expected, dark, dark, dark. The opening scrim was of a tangled wood more suited to Hansel and Gretel’s journey, there was no lake that I could see, but there was a large dark shape hovering over us all. The program’s Swan Lake essay referred to the tangled brambles that ended in clawlike shapes as “pain that drips like nerve endings,” which sounded more like Black Swan to me than Swan Lake (gentle reader, they are not the same thing). The set of Act I looked awful – some strange, lurid swatches of orange and just plain yucky color swirling around that just looked cheap. The costumes looked cheap, too, in lurid colors that alarmingly clashed with everything. I couldn’t figure that act out at all. I didn’t know where they were (weren’t they supposed to be outdoors?). The program said that the design referred to the turbulent emotions of the characters, but the first half (Martins divides the production into two acts) is way less emotionally turbulent than the second here, unless he means the Jester’s costume, which made me emotionally turbulent. The first part of this production seems to wander around, and a more focused décor could help, maybe.

            So when I say I liked this Swan Lake, I really mean that I liked the performances (not to mention the music), which tore that silly scenery away. Martins moves things swiftly, and to my mind, in the second part, it worked. I could feel the audience, somewhat tentative in the first act, lean forward in the second, including the young lady next to me who had muttered to her father at intermission, “It’s not like in the movie.” I even began to appreciate the lakeless forest, its tangle emphasizing the tangle of motivations. The dark foreboding seemed to lift and, as Odette forgave the prince for his unintended betrayal, more light appeared in that forest.

            Martins’ ending is neither Romeo and Juliet tragedy nor happy ending. Von Rotbart is destroyed, but the spell continues because of the prince’s blunder. In the program’s essay, Martins indicated that he meant that the prince had given his pledge to two women, and the lesson was he had to make a choice, that we all have to make a choice. This baffles me. The prince did make a choice, Odette, but he was tricked (you can argue that he was stupid, but his intentions were good throughout). What felt authentic about the ending was that it was a more thoughtful and mature idea: love with an open heart, despite dark powers about us, will in the end succeed – even if it’s not a totally happy ending, good comes from it. This is still a triumph of love and forgiveness even if romance cannot continue. I felt this was a realistic, if still sad, conclusion and an ending for grownups who live in a tangled world where no choice seems clear – keep your heart open to love and forgiveness, and evil will eventually be conquered, even though we may not get what we want in our lives. Keeping your hearts open, even if it seems that all fails, is a courageous and good choice.

            I’m not sure if Martins had any idea about that moral; it may have simply been the superb performance by Mearns that gave me those iinsights. And I’m not entirely sure if this production isn’t a cut and paste job by Martins without any understanding of the mythologic, balletic, or musical material. That, too, is sad, but on Friday, it didn’t matter. Unlike Von Rotbart, Martins was rescued by Odette, Odile, Siegfried, and oh, yes, by Tschaikovsky.

Swan Lake. Music by Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky; Choreogoraphy by Peter Martins after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and George Balanchine; Scenery and Costumes by Per Kirkeby; Costumes based on original designs by Per Kirkeby and Kirsten Lund Nielsen; Costumes realized by Barbara Matera; Lighting by Mark Stanley; premiere Oct. 27, 1996, The Royal Theater, Copenhagen, Denmark. New York City Ballet Premiere: April 29, 1999, New York State Theater.

New York City Ballet’s Winter season continues through Feb. 27. For information and tickets, go to www.nycballet.com.

 Mary Sheeran is the author of Quest of the Sleeping Princess, a novel set during a gala performance at the New York City Ballet (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com) and Who Have the Power, a historical novel set during the Comstock Lode era about a pianist discovering that her mother was a healing woman of the Washo tribe (www.whohavethepower.com).

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