American Ballet Theatre
New York, Metropolitan Opera House
21 June 2018
Swan Lake is a funny thing: a ballet held up as the highest classical standard of its art, for which, in reality, no standard production actually exists, and never did.
Different versions end in different ways: double suicide, singular suicide, love triumphing over evil, drowning in an abyss, coupled bliss in the afterlife, baddies demolished, deformed and dethroned. We’ve seen all-male versions, and Freudian takes. But what everyone expects to see, and often judges a company by, are actually tropes invented, rearranged, and restaged after the production first debuted in 1877.
Like most companies, Kevin McKenzie’s 2000 production for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) takes its lead from the choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, who allowed Riccardo Drigo to rejigger Tchaikovsky’s score. That black swan pas de deux you love so much? Recent scholarship has revealed it was originally assigned to a mere villager in the first act. Drigo moved it, to dramatic effect, and in 1895 Petipa/Ivanov debuted their production with the fortuitously named Pierina Legnani (even the Trocks couldn’t do better) as Odette/Odile, who gave us the 32 fouettes we know and love today.
The fouettes were a smash hit Thursday night, as Devon Teuscher whipped the audience into a frenzy. Teuscher is a sumptuous Odette and devastating Odile. Her articulate hands – equally elegant and angular – evoke both avian grandeur and conjurer’s tricks. It is a challenge to describe how perfect she is in this role, how nuanced, how effective, how moving.
Promoted to principal in 2017 after ten years with the company, Teuscher has done her time, and the results are breathtaking. She has found a calibrated balance between the Russian roots of this ballet – its drama, angles and arms – and an unaffected, direct delivery. Her Odette is as otherworldly in form as she is terrestrial in heart – the emotions of a young, impressionable ingenue living, breathing among us.
Teuscher and Cory Stearns (Prince Siegfried) have electrifying chemistry, the drama between them deftly steered by an intuitive Teuscher. Stearns is magnetically drawn towards her (his life paramour) but was sometimes distracted in group scenes. In Siegfried’s existential, woe-is-me solos, his port de bras went limp too early, lacking the classical definition to contrast with slumping sighs of helplessness as the prospect of marriage looms large.
In the pas de trois, Catherine Hurlin stood out as a promising young dancer full of verve and personality. Brimming with love for the dance, Hurlin’s musicality drives her dancing, giving it a rhapsodic flair. Maintaining a strong core in her petit allegro is something for her to work on. Gabe Stone Shayer delighted as a reveller in Act I, a courteous courtier who acted the part, and dazzled as one of the two Neopolitan dancers (the other a snappy Aaron Scott) in the ball in Act III – his extensions, polish and passion didn’t go unnoticed.
New York lacks a truly great Swan Lake. Peter Martins’ for New York City Ballet is a rough ride, and McKenzie’s is ready for a refresh. The prologue of Von Rothbart the seducer (the astute and comic Thomas Forster), while logical, ends with a grown man stroking a stuffed swan like it’s his binky. Von Rothbart-as-sorcerer (played by Roman Zhurbin) is a hulking swamp man with ram horns as illustrated by William Blake (a la the Red Dragon). The final scene in the ballet is awkward in many productions. One of Nureyev’s early stagings has him as Siegfried drowning in swathes of lake-like satin, as if playing a solo Marco Polo match – it proves an impressive test of stamina. Here, Von Rothbart has to kill a lot of time on his own after Siegfried hurls himself into the depths following Odette – they are united in the afterlife. With so much powerful Tchaikovsky music here to use, it seems there must be a way to do it better.