Boston, Boston Opera House
7, 8 November 2014
I was away when Boston Ballet opened its new production of Swan Lake on October 30, but I caught two performances the following week and can report that it’s a winner. In fact, it’s been so popular that the company added a third week of performances.
The ballet largely failed when it premiered in Moscow in 1877, or rather people enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s score but disliked the choreography so much that the ballet was soon removed from the repertory for nearly ten years. Then Petipa and Ivanov re-choreographed the entire ballet (Petipa Acts I and III; Ivanov Acts II and IV). With slight modifications to Tchaikovsky’s score, the new version premiered in Moscow in 1895 to ecstatic reviews, but Tchaikovsky never got to enjoy his success, having died two years before. It’s one of the great ironies in the history of dance that the ballet which has become virtually synonymous with ballet itself had a stillborn birth. (Shades of Bizet’s Carmen.)
This Boston Ballet production is called Mikko Nissinen’s World Premiere Swan Lake, Nissinen being the company’s Artistic Director for the past 13 years. I’m not sure what the title means since portions of the choreography are pure Petipa (most of the first three acts for example), so I’ll leave it to someone better informed to apportion credit. I do know however that most of Nissinen’s changes occur in Act IV, many felicitous, some inspired, as when the curtain rises on a misty glade and the swans gradually appear, rising above the positions on the floor: first one swan, then four, then nine, and finally twenty. The scene is one of pure magic. Nissinen also handles large groups well, a difficult thing to do. In fact, the whole production is excellent, marred only at the beginning and end by lapses of judgment. Just after von Rothbart captures Odette in the Prologue, he drags her backwards into darkness on her belly, an extremely ungainly sight. And at the end, we’re offered no final vision of the lovers, no apotheosis, an absence I found disappointing. Otherwise, we get two and a half hours of unalloyed satisfaction.
At my first performance, Ashley Ellis was a first-rate Odette/Odile, giving a nearly flawless performance. (I’m assuming that flawless performances transpire only in Heaven or some other extraterrestial locale.) Her Odette was cool, dignified, somewhat remote, and so ethereal that it seemed her arms ended in feathery appendages rather than hands. I wished her Odile had been more ominous, but she nevertheless did justice to the role. Unfortunately, her Siegfried, Eris Nezha, was disappointing. He has good port de bras and he partners well, but he’s largely inexpressive and brings neither nuance nor depth to the role. Nothing he did ever enlarged or energized the stage, and he seemed oddly anxious throughout, making it impossible to relax whenever he was on stage. He seemed to be thinking about his performance instead of simply dancing.
But such problems in a male principal have been characteristic of Nissinen’s stewardship; it seems he’s either unable or unwilling to hire, keep, and promote virile, charismatic men. Boston Ballet claims to be a world-class company, and that’s largely true of the corps, some of the soloists, and many of the female principals. It’s easy to imagine several of the female principals at that same rank in other world-class companies, but almost impossible with the male principals.
In that same first performance, the Pas de Trois was splendidly performed by Dusty Button, Seo Hye Han, and the dazzling newcomer Junxiong Zhao. (Note that name, for I predict a bright future for this young man of graceful but strong presence, excellent technique, breathtaking leaps, perfect proportions, and one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever seen.) Anais Chalendard was lovely in the Pas de Cinq of Act III, and Sabi Varga was especially thrilling as Rothbart. Abundant praise also goes to designer Robert Perdziola for the most gorgeous sets and costumes I’ve ever seen in a Swan Lake. His raked angles were especially effective, and the receding double perspective of the tapestry-hung ballroom in Act III was a miracle of ingenuity and beauty. The orchestra under Jonathan McFee was not quite up to its usual high standard.
My second performance was an improvement, mainly because of the stellar performances of the leads: Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio. These two are now the signature couple of Boston Ballet, appearing on posters and in most opening night performances. Kuranaga is one of the leading classical ballerinas in the United States and Cirio is a worthy partner. By now they have performed together so often that they are superbly synchronized, more like two parts of an organic whole than separate entities. Her Odette was a wild creature, skittish as a doe and full of frightened flutterings; her Odile was both alluring and venomous. Cirio’s Siegfried was perhaps a bit boyish, but he was nonetheless an ardent and attentive suitor. In their Black Swan pas de deux, both were magnificent, exuding a confidence that allowed them to play with the tempi, anticipating a beat here, lingering on a note there, an effect that gave their dancing alluring elasticity.
Few ballets rely more on the corps for their success than Swan Lake. Boston Ballet’s corps has always been one of its greatest strengths, and once again these dancers did the company proud, especially the women who performed the swans. It seems only fair to let these fine young men and women take the final bow.