Everyone complains about the shortcomings of ABT’s “Swan Lake,” but I have to say it: they pale in comparison to the inadequacy of the company’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Four years after its premiere, this production, which was conceived after Petipa by Kevin Mckenzie (the company’s artistic director), Gelsey Kirkland, and her dramaturge husband Michael Chernov, reveals itself, even after significant tinkering, to be a muddled mess, with little to recommend it except for the canonical set pieces (the Rose Adagio in the first act, the wedding pas de deux, and the wonderful Bluebird scene) and Tchaikovsky’s glorious music. The sets are cutesy, with rounded turrets and cartoonish backdrops (with the exception of the autumnal hunting scene, which is nice), the costumes are rendered in crass, candy-colored pastels. The sparkly eagle-shaped contraption that conveys the Lilac Fairy and Prince Désiré to Aurora’s kingdom is simply horrid. And, beyond the trimmings: the famous Garland Waltz—with its marvelous, buoyant melody—contains almost no dancing; how is this possible in a world that has already seen Balanchine’s marvelous version of this dance, which dates back to 1981? The charming character dances for various fairy-tale characters have been excised from the last act (except, thankfully, for the show-stopping Bluebird). Generally speaking, the pacing is downright weird: what can one say about a “Sleeping Beauty” where the village scene—in which a group of silly old women is nearly condemned to death for concealing a dreaded spindle—carries more dramatic weight than the prince’s arrival and his magical, life-giving kiss?
Even Tchaikovsky’s glorious score is marred by a flawed interpretation, a lack of clear character or impulse to carry one through the ballet. I’ve complained in the past of Fayçal Karoui’s brisk tempi at New York City Ballet, especially in the Tchaikovsky works. But at least Karoui has a style, a profile; he favors a muscular, dynamic attack, with clear rhythmic structure and a rather dry sound. He has no Russian sense of lushness, and the high points lack radiance and grandeur. All of this of course undermines the epic dimension of these ballets. But at least the music has a character, like it or not. At ABT, on the other hand, it feels as if the tempi and dynamics were wholly subservient to the qualities of each individual performer. Yes, it’s good to have some flexibility, some give—the same is true in opera—but the dancers should also be given the opportunity to respond to the music, absorb it, and mold their interpretations to it. When the orchestra is reduced to merely following the performers, the loser is not only the music, but also the choreography. They’re not just steps after all. On July 2nd, for example, the lovely Veronika Part, dancing the role of Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty,” began her solo in the wedding scene one full beat ahead of the music. And why not, since the music scarcely matters? Her diagonal of pas de chevals (little steps that look like a gentle pawing) was gorgeous, soft, and delicate, but these steps are not meant to be admired on their own, they mean something, and that meaning is partly articulated by the music. Petipa and Tchaikovsky are telling a story, together: “look what a beautiful, happy woman I’ve grown up to be.” Without the story, it’s just pretty steps; this is why ballet is often seen as a silly art.
The same is true of ABT’s “Swan Lake.” The double and triple (and sometimes quadruple) pirouettes that have become almost de rigueur in the coda of the “black swan” pas de deux—thrown in with those thirty-two canonical fouetté turns—are impressive in and of themselves, but they take away from the momentum of the scene, undercutting the rhythmic crescendo that carries us toward the climactic finish. Again, the crescendo is not merely mechanical; it echoes Siegfried’s growing loss of control, his complete surrender to Odile’s manipulative charms. I’m not arguing that dancers should go back to “mere” fouetté turns, only that the emphasis on variety, at the expense of accumulation, has its cost, musically and dramatically, and that this is something to be considered. After all, this isn’t “Don Quixote.”
I was reminded of this fact last week (on July 2) during Polina Semionova’s long-awaited company début in “Swan Lake,” alongside Marcelo Gomes. As Semionova turned and turned, mixing her fouetté’s with double pirouettes, with no sign of physical strain or emotional triumph—she could have gone on for half an hour, without breaking a sweat–I suddenly realized that my pulse had barely quickened. The orchestra held the beat and waited for her to finish. Meanwhile, Gomes was going wild: toward the end of his series of turns with the leg extended outward, he threw his head back in an almost indecent way, evoking a kind of sexual desperation. “Let me have her!” he seemed to be screaming. His imagination was working for the both of them. And that’s why people love him: he’s all story.
All in all, Semionova’s interpretation was incredibly polished, effortless, and silky-smooth. She’s the Rolls-Royce of ballerinas, a specimen without flaws; it’s hard to find fault with any aspect of her performance, even her acting, which is understated but just detailed enough. And she’s game; she has a relaxed sort of delivery which is appealing, and, especially in her performance with David Hallberg in “Don Quixote” a few weeks back, a kind of playful sparkle in her eye. She must not have had much rehearsal time with Gomes, who was thrown in as a last-minute replacement for the injured Hallberg, but there was no sign of awkwardness between them. She’s a very beautiful woman, and womanly: tall with a broad, supple torso and pretty, sparkling eyes. Her interpretations of Kitri and Odette/Odile capitalized on this very feminine, sensual quality—she was a flirtatious Spanish lass in “Don Q” and a sensual, beautiful Odette. As yet there’s not much poetry or transcendence there, but perhaps that’s not was she’s going for. She’s a modern-day ballerina, giving an intelligent, virtuosic, and highly polished reading of the choreography. The only concrete drawback I can see to this approach—and it’s a big one–is that it lacks inner life. It’s as if she hasn’t quite figured out what all this means to her.
One can’t say that about Veronika Part, dancing in “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” or anything else for that matter. She knows what it means to her, and that meaning is something profound, deeply tragic, pregnant with emotion. Such feelings are not always appropriate (as in “Sleeping Beauty”) but they’re hers. On July 1st, she was extremely moving in “Swan Lake,” despite the fact that her partner, Cory Stearns, was not really on the same page. Stearns has a slightly recessive, pleasingly masculine, stage presence and a casual, American style. He manages to make even John Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias” look several degrees less tawdry. But Part needs a more responsive, more theatrical partner who will draw her out of her own story and connect with her, someone who will ride the emotional wave (as Gomes does) while providing endless support for her sometimes impulsive, always full-throttle, weighted movement. She throws herself into turns and lunges with all the weight of her broad, expressive back. She looks almost possessed when she dances, in touch with some deep source of feeling. She’s not always as technically solid as she could be—I’ve seen her wobble, come down off point, even stumble. But when she folds that back and then unfurls her body into one of her glorious shapes, I wouldn’t trade her for anyone else. It’s a slightly overpowering approach to “Sleeping Beauty”; she has none of the lightness or youthful delight I associate with Aurora, but it certainly illuminates other roles, like Sugarplum in “The Nutcracker” and Myrtha in “Giselle,” the queen of the dryads in “Don Quixote” and Zina in Ratmansky’s “Bright Stream.” And of course the Lilac Fairy in “Sleeping Beauty.”
Speaking of Lilac Fairies, on July 5, Stella Abrera danced the role with a fullness I don’t usually associate with her. In fact, she’s been dancing well all season; she was wonderful as Myrtha, and stylish as the ballerina in “The Bright Stream.” Isabella Boylston, though not a natural fairy by temperament (she can look rather serious onstage), was a lush, dynamic Fairy of Fervor, with big, powerful jumps and a full-bodied use of her back and shoulders. Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin were lovely and technically brilliant in the Bluebird variations, but Simkin should pay more attention to his partnering; he almost dropped Lane and had to carry her offstage in an awkward, embarrassing position. But no cast could save this unhappy production, though Alina Cojocaru, who will dance on the evening of July 6 with Johan Kobborg, is probably the best bet. (Her performance last year was luminous, sweet, and deeply touching.) But this unsatisfactory Sleeping Beauty, placed at the end of the season, is like an unwelcome visit from Carabosse, the angry fairy in Sleeping Beauty. It’s a downer, casting a pall over the whole party. We need a Lilac Fairy to save us—perhaps Christopher Wheeldon or Alexei Ratmansky might be willing to weave some magic?
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