The Sunday evening performance of the Washington Ballet’s Swan Lake had an atmosphere of a big heartfelt celebration. Filling the Eisenhower Theater to the brim, the dressed-to-impress crowd cheered with bravos and applause during and after the show. They had every reason to rejoice. This handsomely-crafted and well-danced Swan Lake marked an important milestone for the Washington Ballet and proved a huge achievement for its artistic director Septime Webre.
“For any ballet company, premiering its first production of Swan Lake in many ways means the company has arrived,” wrote Webre in the program notes. Indeed, the Washington Ballet has made a long journey to achieve the level of technical and artistic mastery that ultimately allows this relatively small-scale company to challenge the Mount Everest of 19th century classical ballet repertory. “We would have never considered doing this work if in the past we hadn’t tackled ballets like Coppélia, Don Quixote and Le Corsaire. Last fall we performed Giselle, and the corps de ballet had advanced so strongly, and looked so good, that I said, ‘all right, let’s try Swan Lake.’ One season builds on the next and you count on the dancers growing through the repertory,” said Webre during the interview for DanceTabs in October, driving home the point that his company was ready for the task.
This production of Swan Lake, created with great care and respect for history and style, was a good fit for the company. Following the steps and the spirit of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, choreographer Kirk Peterson gave a masterful account of the familiar tragic love story of an enchanted princess turned into a swan and a prince who, in an attempt to save her, is deceived by evil forces. The expressive pantomime, organically interwoven into the choreography, greatly enhanced the clarity and dramatic nuances of the plot. The attractive set decorations and costumes (created by Peter Cazalet and loaned by Ballet West) gave this production a charming picturesque appeal. And live music makes it all the more enjoyable. Evermay Chamber Orchestra played with commendable dedication, delivering a fine reading of Tchaikovsky’s score.
When Misty Copeland as Swan Queen Odette bourréed onstage in the beginning of the second act, the audience’s cheering was on a par with that of a sporting event. Such an enthusiastic response was well justified. Copeland, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, and her Prince of the evening, the Washington Ballet’s own Brooklyn Mack, will go down in ballet history as one of the first African American couples in the leading roles of Swan Lake.
In this country, the name of Misty Copeland became synonymous with hope for every female dancer of color who aspires to make it big in the very exclusive and conservative world of classical ballet. Copeland’s performance as Odette/Odile with the Washington Ballet not only created a boost for the production’s box-office success – both nights of her performances were sold out – but also attracted huge media attention. Having written a book and been featured in numerous publications and television programs, Copeland is a celebrity and a role model for thousands of young dancers; but most importantly, she is a truly gifted performer with a solid technique and magnetic stage presence. Just recently, during the ABT season at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the Washington audience had a chance to savor her accomplished pointe work in a demi-soloist role in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations and her dramatic talent as the lead in Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo.
With its taxing technical demands, the dual role of Odette and her evil doppelganger Odile is the ultimate test of artistic proficiency and maturity for a ballerina. Despite being a newcomer to the role, Copeland was pure delight to watch; yet she will need more time and training to master this part to the point where it becomes truly her own.
I liked her best in the role of Odette – a beautiful young woman entrapped in a body of a swan and longing for freedom. With every ripple of her fluid arms and gentle quivering of her head, Copeland revealed a poignant Odette, anguished in her loneliness and sorrow. I admired the soft quality of her dancing; her lyrical and warm expression; and the unmannered way she translated her feelings, simply and sincerely.
Copeland and Mack established a believable connection from the start, making it possible for the audience to fully experience the highs and lows of the ill-fated romance of their characters. Their pas de deux in the second act was graceful and tender as well as emotionally genuine – you could feel these two young people falling in love with each other. Only with her prince did this Odette project a glimpse of hope and happiness, finding security and solace in his affectionate embraces.
As the vile seductress Odile, transformed to resemble Odette, Copeland was less convincing; her performance lacked the seductive allure and veiled malice that make this role a brilliant coup de théâtre. She was glamorous and assertive as the Black Swan; yet I wanted to see more fire and tantalizing appeal in her dancing, more mischief and predatory wickedness in her characterization. I also felt she needed to perfect the technical intricacies of this role, especially the pesky, indestructible fouttése in the third act’s pas de deux.
As Siegfried, Mack effectively juggled the duality of his role of a noble aristocrat and a young man deeply in love. His apt performance enlivened the usually slow Act I, which takes place during the Prince’s birthday celebration. His wry pantomime exchanges with the Queen (played with a fine theatrical flair by Sona Kharatian) and his perpetually tipsy tutor (Luis R. Torres) were particularly delightful. Although his melancholic solo in the first act appeared somewhat uneven, he was consistent and solid in the duets, dancing with aplomb and providing an able support to his ballerina.
Throughout the performance, the corps de ballet was in a good form. Peterson conjured some of the ballet’s most inspired choreography for the flock of swan maidens, visually and dramatically enriching this Swan Lake. The Washington Ballet’s female ensemble, together with the dancers of the Studio Company and trainees, demonstrated their commitment and meticulous attention to detail, giving it their all and then some.
During the curtain call, Copeland and Mack held each other in a long emotional embrace as the audience stood and cheered. It was a very special moment for these two outstanding dancers as well as for the Washington Ballet, and I felt fortunate to witness it.