American Ballet Theatre – Swan Lake – New York

Hee Seo and Roman Zhurbin in <I>Swan Lake</I>.<br />© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)
Hee Seo and Roman Zhurbin in Swan Lake.
© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)

American Ballet Theatre
Swan Lake

New York, Metropolitan Opera House
28 June 2014

Lakeside Blues

American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake is looking tired. It’s not the fault of the designs by Zack Brown, which are lovely enough. (The color combinations of the costumes at the ball – lilac and lime green, orange and saffron – are actually quite eye-catching.) The age of the production isn’t really the issue either, considering that it premièred in 2000, thirteen years after the company’s Giselle, which has held up quite nicely. But it flounders, bogged down by reams of flavorless dancing. The ending is truncated almost beyond recognition. And its central conceit – the splitting of the villainous Von Rothbart into two roles, horned monster and purple-stockinged seducer – is cartoonish and stale.

The dancers, and even the orchestra, seem to sense this; a lack of urgency permeates the proceedings, onstage and below deck. It is particularly noticeable in the first act, which depicts Prince Siegfried’s birthday celebrations. The mood is listless, the dances unimaginative. The traditional pas de trois lags behind the music. And there is so little for the prince to do. Through sheer force of personality and imagination, some dancers, like Marcelo Gomes (and Ángel Corella before him), manage to overcome this lack of engagement, but most – including the handsome Roberto Bolle at this performance – are reduced to smiling wanly on the sidelines while they await their turn.

Alexandre Hammoudi as von Rothbart in <i>Swan Lake</i>.<br />© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)
Alexandre Hammoudi as von Rothbart in Swan Lake.
© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)

And then there is Von Rothbart’s preposterous “dance of seduction” in the third act, during the presentation of the princesses. To music Tchaikovsky composed for a “Russian dance,” the bearded guest provocatively shows off a thigh, then pounces on one princess after another, and finally sets his eyes on the queen. At its best, hammed up by Marcelo Gomes or (hilariously, last year) Ivan Vasiliev, this becomes a kind of fascinating side-show, a display of sex appeal and whiz-bang technique. Few dancers can pull it off. At this performances Aléxandre Hammoudi, who made a promising début as Albrecht last week, did his best to glower and flirt. He has good instincts, but lacks the chutzpah to really take his interpretation to its tacky extreme, and he looked taxed by the tricky, exposing choreography – especially the final, slow raising of the leg into arabesque.

Mr. Bolle betrayed no such technical struggles; he danced the role of the prince with his usual finesse, elegant transitions and phrasing. It is particularly pleasing to see the way he lands from a jump – considering his size – into a juicy plié, with nary a sound. But fluid transitions and neat fifth positions do not equal an exciting performance. Bolle’s amiably blank expression and slightly stiff demeanor are his greatest weaknesses. He never quite comes alive as a character. It is in his partnering that artistry resides. In his hands, ballerinas grow, even as he disappears.

The evening’s Odette, Hee Seo, is a dancer of rare beauty: long, tapering legs that she wraps around her cavalier like a scarf, willowy arms that ripple like moonbeams, heart-shaped face, liquid eyes. Since becoming a principal in 2012, she has grown from a promising young dancer with beautiful lines to a ballerina. Though she still betrays some signs of weakness – a tendency to plop down from pointe rather than roll through the foot, hard landings from turns – she now commands the stage. She has a way of expanding during a balance or in her partner’s arms that makes her look almost boneless. And she’s beginning to take chances, as in a plunging dive into penchée attitude during the lakeside pas de deux – repeated in the “Black Swan” duet – that brought to mind the swoop of a bird of prey. (Bolle was there to catch her, not a moment too soon.)

Roberto Bolle as Prince Siegfried in <I>Swan Lake</I>.<br />© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)
Roberto Bolle as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake.
© Gene Schiavone. (Click image for larger version)

The lakeside act hasn’t lost its power, even in this staging. (Thank you Lev Ivanov and Tchaikovsky.) The way the corps frames the pas de deux, enclosing the couple in a wedge or drawing it forward in a diagonal across the stage – is a lesson in ballet’s unique ability to turn geometry into psychology, even destiny. But for all the beauty of Seo’s dancing – and Bolle’s self-effacing partnering – she hasn’t yet unlocked the story embedded in the steps, the awakening of feeling, the evolution from fear to trust to love. Without that, it is simply a beautiful set piece. For now, Seo is more in her element as the glistening, heartless Odile, where her confidence and glamour serve her well. Poor, smiling Siegfried doesn’t stand a chance.

A few other moments stood out at this performance. The luxury casting of Joseph Gorak and Zhiyao Zhang (who became a member of the corps only last year) as the two Neapolitan acrobats turned this little bauble of a duet into a feast of beaten jumps and elegant turns. The cygnet dance was so precisely and crisply executed that it was a little bit like looking at a ballerina with eight legs and four heads. But nothing can quite shake up this somnolent Swan Lake.

About the author

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a free-lance dance writer and translator in New York. Her dance writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The Nation, Playbill, The Faster Times, DanceView, The Forward, Pointe, and Ballet Review. Her translations, which include Irène Némirovsky’s “The Mirador,” Dino Buzzati’s “Poem Strip,” and Pasolini’s “Stories from the City of God” have been published by FSG, Other Press, and New York Review Books. You can check her updates on Twitter at: @MarinaHarss

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