American Ballet Theatre
New York, Metropolitan Opera House
12, 14 (mat) June 2017
Swans in Love
The thing that keeps people coming back to a ballet like Swan Lake – besides the music – is the audience’s curiosity about what the double role of Odette and Odile will reveal about the woman dancing it. Does she fulfill our expectations for the role: is she vulnerable enough, strong enough, poetic enough, bold enough? Does she make the choreography sing? But also, and equally importantly, what does she reveal of herself, of her unique dancing quality, through the role?
This week I saw Isabella Boylston (June 12) and Devon Teuscher (June 14 matinee), a principal dancer and a soloist respectively, dance Swan Lake at American Ballet Theatre. Both performances were remarkable, in markedly different ways. Both succeeded despite the limitations of the company’s shopworn 2000 production, which lacks energy and is beginning to look rather down in the mouth. The worn and discolored costumes, at least, should be replaced. Teuscher, who was dancing the role for only the second time – and for the first time in New York – exhibited an impressive authority. Already her interpretation has a clear texture and an arc. And one senses that it will only grow with time, that she’s just getting started. This, despite the fact that that her partner did little to complement her dramatic intensity. She had to go it more or less alone.
Boylston, on the other hand, had the good fortune of being paired with a dancer, Alban Lendorf, who is not only exciting on his own, but an admirable partner. The two have a palpable connection; from the moment they set eyes on each other on the stage, a story begins to unfold. In their first meeting at the lakeside, she is frantic but already clearly intrigued by the young prince; he is dumbstruck, fascinated. Lendorf’s Siegfried could not take his eyes off of this exotic creature, even when she was behind him; he twisted his torso and turned his head so that she could not evade his gaze. And vice versa: Lendorf unleashed a new impetuosity and sensuousness in Boylston’s dancing. He drew this normally emotionally reticent ballerina out of her shell.
The level of the dancing on the 12th was extraordinarily high: Boylston reached and reached away from her torso with her back and arms, expanding into space; she drove into arabesques penchés with abandon, rolled luxuriantly off pointe, and subtly arched her back, expressing longing and even a hint of desire. Her initial leap from the wings was crystalline, silvery. Lendorf’s control and the purity of his line are prodigious. In the third act, he performed a jump I’d never really noticed before: a leap with a beat and a change of direction in the middle. The clarity of the switch, in midair, and the slow, almost deliberate way he executed the step, made it register with new force. In the renversés in his first act “soliloquy,” he seemed to be moving through water. The two are so musical that when they are together they appear to be swimming in the music, vibrating with the orchestra. In this they were helped by the excellent violinist Benjamin Bowman who is, alas, departing to become concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera. The entire pas de deux felt like an extended aria. The ensemble of swans, too, played its part, giving a poetic, almost meditative performance.
On the matinée of June 14, Teuscher, too, was impressive. She’s a more regal, upright dancer than Boylston; there’s something almost Athenian about her strong back, her pristine lines and gorgeous, classically-proportioned features. Her turns are centered, unshakeable, calm. For the record: in the “black swan” pas de deux, she executed 11 double solid fouetté turns, plus 12 single ones, and it looked like she could have kept going if the music had continued. (Boylston, who is recovering from an ankle injury, smartly opted for a quick, flickering manège of piqué turns. The poor balletomanes didn’t get their fouetté fix.) But what was even more impressive was the level of detail in Teuscher’s characterization. Her mime was full of dynamic contrasts. Her dancing had suggestions of bird-like mannerisms, but not so many or so pronounced as to be distracting. Her Odette had a point of view; she took Siegfried’s hand, then pushed it away, commandingly. She was in control of her emotions. In the final lakeside scene, you could see the moment her Odette decided to forgive the penitent Siegfried. It wasn’t a given.
Unfortunately her Siegfried, Aléxandre Hammoudi, was unable to react in kind. Hammoudi gave an emotionally tepid, stiff performance. Perhaps he wasn’t feeling in top form; several turns wobbled off course, his upper body was unsteady, and his dancing in general lacked polish. Though the partnering was, for the most part, steady, it did little to heighten Teuscher’s performance. There was no give and take, no buildup of emotion.
As people have been pointing out for years, the production in general needs a revamp, or at least some extra love and attention. As it is now, much of it feels like filler, killing time before the swans show up. It doesn’t help when, as happened on Monday, two of the mazurka dancers bump into each other in a moment of confusion. In Swan Lake, as in every ballet, everything matters, not just the lakeside acts. What I wouldn’t give to see some exciting character dancing! Then there is the issue of the purple boots. Here, the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart is split into two roles: a green reptilian swamp monster and a purple-booted seducer. The latter shows up at the Prince’s ball and, to the music of the Russian dance, charms all the ladies, including the queen. He grabs the poor Spanish princess by the skirt and pushes the Neapolitan princess aside to forge a pathway to the Italian princess. (Terrible manners!) Some dancers, like Marcelo Gomes, have turned this business into a campy pièce de resistance. Gomes is fabulous in it, and the audience loves him for it. Every night there are titters. But it gives the whole scene a tawdry air.
Special mention goes to various dancers in smaller roles: On June 14, Zhiyao Zhang was a most impressive Benno, with clean, soaring jumps in the first act pas de trois. In the same pas de trois on Monday, Skylar Brandt (June 12) sparkled, her beaten jumps neat and crisp. All three men I saw in the acrobatic Neapolitan dance – Gabe Stone Shayer, Jonathan Klein, and Arron Scott – were excellent, even when, as happened on June 14, someone’s slipper had to be quickly adjusted mid-dance.
It’s heartening to see such strong performances; they deserve a better setting for their efforts. But no matter the production, Swan Lake survives and people will come back to it again and again.