Friday, October 16, 2009

Culture Cat--BalletMet/Cincinnati Ballet's "Swan Lake"

BalletMet Dancer Carrie West as Odette--photo courtesy of BalletMet

BalletMet opened its 2009-2010 season tonight with a bang--a massive production of Swan Lake, performed in conjunction with Cincinnati Ballet. In front of a large, very appreciative audience at the Ohio Theater, both ballet companies performed to their absolute best and presented a new version of "the most classic of Classical Ballets", while still remaining true to the ballet's core.

With well over 40 professional dancers, and 30 dancers from the BalletMet academy, this production is much larger than BalletMet's last presentation of Swan Lake (David Nixon's version, in 2004). While the sheer number could be overwhelming in less capable hands, the choreographic trio of Gerard Charles (BalletMet artistic director), Victoria Morgan (Artistic Director/CEO of Cincinnati Ballet) and Devon Carney (Associate Artistic Director, Cincinnati Ballet) take this wonderful cornucopia of dancers and mold them into a cohesive and thrilling whole.  In short: Swan Lake is a stunning example of the transportive power of dance.

In the remaking, there are a few nods to other classical ballets--Siegfried (danced tonight by new BalletMet company member Andres Esteves) wears a blue costume in Act I, which is reminiscent of Rudolph Nureyev's Swan Lake costume, and the mesmerizing first entrance of the swan maidens seems to borrow from La Bayadere's "Kingdom of the Shades." I'm not sure if these were purposeful allusions, but if they were, I loved them.

Our doomed lovers this evening were danced by Carrie West, a BalletMet veteran, and Mr. Esteves (as always with BalletMet shows, casts rotate). Mr. Esteves joined BalletMet from the National Cuban Ballet this year, and one would imagine that coming from Cuba to Columbus, OH, would require a bit of a cultural adjustment. But, as Mr. Esteves said during a post-show question and answer period, the language of classical ballet is the same everywhere. In his first outing with BalletMet, Mr. Esteves gave a bravura performance as the conflicted Prince Siegfried, who must marry, but is not in love with any of the pretty courtiers and princesses who flood his court. Esteves is a brilliant dancer and actor, which is hard to accomplish, and conveys Siegfried's reluctance, curiosity, despair, and joy once he finds his love.

During a hunting trip with his best friend, Benno (danced by Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Cervilio Miguel Amador), and other men of the court, Siegfried discovers the "Swan Lake" and aims his crossbow at an approaching swan.

This isn't just any Swan--this is Odette, Queen of the Swans, who have been enchanted by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart (danced with impressive athleticism by BalletMet's Jimmy Orrante). They are doomed to be Swans during the day, but maidens at night. Only enduring love can break the spell.

I have seen Ms. West in a variety of productions, from world premiers (Dracula, where she danced the prim Victorian turned undead vampire Lucy Westerna) to the foundations of classical ballet (Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty). She has always been one of my favorite dancers, but tonight she was a revelation. Every movement was technically sound and brilliantly acted. Her transformation, from swan to maiden, and back again, was true artistry, as were her brilliant pas des deux with Esteves. Rock-solid technique gives her a foundation to present truly emotional and glorious performances. I have never seen a dancer like her, who seems born to dance the classical repertoire. Not only is she a gorgeous dancer, but she is gracious and kind in person. During the post-show Q&A she answered a question from a little girl regarding how many pointe shoes she went through per show (Answer: two), and signed autographs afterwards. She must have been exhausted, but didn't show it.

The corps of Swan Maidens, who attend Odette, arrive. While Benno and the other men aim their crossbows, Odette rushes in to protect her maidens; Siegfried tells them to go elsewhere. Act I ends with Siegfried pledging his love to Odette, who turns back into a swan as dawn arrives.

Act II opens with a royal ball, where Siegfried, by order of his mother (Susan Brooker), must choose a bride. Six women are presented to him--in a glorious touch of comedy, they joust for position, each striving to be the one who catches Siegfried's eye. But he only has eyes for Odette-until a new guest, and his daughter, arrive.

Von Rothbart, seeing the Prince's love for Odette, and knowing that this love would break his power over all the swans, has come to the party, bringing his daughter, Odile (BalletMet's Zoica Tovar), who is enchanted to look like Odette. Thus fooled, Siegfried dances joyfully with her, and pledges his love. Odette rushes in, heartbroken, and Siegfied realizes his mistake--but too late.

In most productions, Odette and Odile are danced by the same person, in order for the 'illusion' to be complete. In Nixon's 2004 version, they were danced by separate women--Nixon said that he didn't want Siegfried's mistake to be a simple one--he wanted to make it much more than just a mix-up. In this production, Charles decided to again have them danced by separate women, and they are, indeed, quite separate. Odette is graceful, shy, protective of her swan maidens, and enduringly feminine. All her movements are elegant. Odile is sexy, athletic, and daring. Ms. Tovar's eyes are some of the most dramatic I have ever seen in a dancer--as Esteves spun her during their pas, her eyes flashed with glee at the audience. She knew what she was doing.

After Siegfried's betrayal, Odette rushes to the lake, where her maidens comfort her. Siegfried has followed her, and, kneeling before her, begs forgiveness. The heartbroken Odette forgives him, and they dance an achingly sad pas with the swan maidens around them. They both know what will happen to Odette, now that Siegfried has pledged his love elsewhere.

Von Rothbart appears to take Odette. She valiantly tries to protect Siegfried, but the two men fight, and, at the end, Odette throws herself off a cliff in despair. Unable to live without his love, Siegfried follows suit, thus demonstrating the enduring love that breaks Von Rothbart's power over the swans. As the swan maidens advance on the evil sorcerer, he flees, and the swans become young maidens again. Snow falls from the sky, and we see an apotheosis of Siegfried and Odette, together eternally in the sky.

(It is a wonderful story, isn't it?)

Odette and Siegfried were really perfect tonight. They partnered together beautifully-there were some one-handed lifts that Esteves accomplished that truly seemed other worldly. I don't think I have ever seen Ms. West partnered so well, except with her husband, former BalletMet dancer Dmitri Suslov. Esteves also answered several questions during the Q&A and stopped to talk with some patrons (including one who spoke Spanish). As tired as he must have been, he remained personable and friendly--a very gracious performer.

In any Grand Ballet, there are what's called divertissments--essentially, dances for the company dancers that don't really add anything to the story, but do show off impressive technical/artistic skills. (Almost the entire second act of Nutcracker, and much of the end of Sleeping Beauty is all this sort of dancing.) But it doesn't need to advance the plot to be fun! BalletMet's students shone in the first act, where the "waltz girls", "courtiers" and "pages" danced with aplomb (the pages were adorable). The Neopolitian, Spanish, and Hungarian dances at the royal party were excellent examples of luscious costumes (especially the flamenco dresses) and diverse dance styles. (The female Hungarian dancers wore character shoes, instead of pointe shoes, for their piece.) The Princesses were hysterically amusing as they vied for Siegfried's attention, and were appropriately put out when the glamorous Odile arrived.

Odile's dancing is athletic, bold, and even a bit sexy. Ms. Tovar is also a new addition to BalletMet. Most of her dancing was excellent, but in her first pas with Siegfried, her supporting leg shook on every balance and releve. It was sort of distracting, but it corrected itself as the act went on. Her fouettes and pirouettes were wonderful. Orrante was, as usual, brilliant in the role of the evil sorcerer who will do everything to advance his own agenda at the expense of Odette and the Swan Maidens' happiness.

Finally, one must give major applause to the Swan Maidens. All of them were simply wonderful--technically sound, artistically perfect. The Cygnets--four swan maidens who danced several divertissements--were stunning. Their first appearance in Act I, where they joined their hands in a criss-cross pattern and executed elaborate footwork as they progressed down the stage, was marvelous. The "Big Swans" danced lovely duets together. In the party scenes, I loved watching Samantha Lewis and Dustin James (both of BalletMet) in the Neopolitan dance.

Lighting was designed by Trad A Burns, Cincinnati Ballet's lighting designer, and was marvelous, especially at the end, when Siegfried and Odette are bathed in a golden spotlight. The costumes, done by both company's costume shops, were just divine. So many colors, fabrics, and lengths! Hats, tambourines, feathered fans....what the costume department came up with was incredible. The lush fall colors of the opening scene gave way to cooler tones for the princesses, and Siegfried and Odile's matching costumes in Act II was an inspired stroke of design.

I know that this is much longer than my usual review, but there is just so much to compliment and rave about in Swan Lake. All you really need to know, though, is this--go see it. You will not be disappointed.

(Oh, and another note--GREAT crowd, lots of kids. Even saw my pastor. I loved the little ballerinas who asked for Carrie West's autograph post show.)

BalletMet and Cincinnati Ballet present "Swan Lake", at the Ohio Theater, Oct. 17 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 18, at 2:00 pm. Ticket prices begin at $29 and can be purchased at the CAPA box office (next door to the theater) before showtime. 

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