Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; June 19(m,e), 2013.

Jerry Hochman.

Isabella Boylston in "Swan Lake" Photo copyright Gene Schiavone

Isabella Boylston in “Swan Lake”
Photo © Gene Schiavone

For many audience members, a performance of “Swan Lake”, perhaps more than any other classical ballet, comes with expectations. The story has to be the way the story was intended to be, or it’s not “Swan Lake”. The music has to be presented the way the composer intended it to be, or it’s not “Swan Lake”. And the choreography has to be the way it was intended to be, or it’s not Swan Lake.

I bring this up because American Ballet Theatre’s current production of “Swan Lake”, and certainly the two performances of it that I saw yesterday, are not ‘the way it’s supposed to be.’

Some viewers dislike that Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s choreography (‘after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’) takes liberties with the Petipa/Ivanov choreography and the arrangement of the Tchaikovsky score. I disagree. And similarly, I suspect that many viewers would have seen yesterday’s performances, by Hee Seo in the afternoon, and Isabella Boylston in the evening, as being deficient because neither was ‘the way it’s supposed to be.’ I disagree there as well.

To this viewer, ‘the way it’s supposed to be,’ with respect to the production, is essential to know the ballet’s origins (or at least its strongest root), but to rigidly maintain its original form – that is, the original Petipa/Ivanov choreography and nothing less or more, the original score unaltered by any modified arrangement, and the original sets and costumes as created, to the extent that originals can be located – is fine for what it is, but the ensuing production runs the risk of appearing to be a museum exhibit. To me, Swan Lake has to breathe and grow and adjust to contemporary sensibilities.

As I’ve written previously, to this viewer Mr. McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake is his most successful creation – or recreation. It accelerates the ballet while maintaining its classical form so that the tonnage moves with a contemporary sensibility; and its addition of a Prologue and its significant changes to Act IV, as well as multiple additional modifications, add to the ballet’s accessibility without altering the story. And his re-conception of von Rothbart, which has as a consequence a changed vision of Act III, makes the ‘standard’ version look sterile by comparison – in Mr. McKenzie’s version, von Rothbart is a virile seducer and sorcerer, casting a spell over the queen, the princesses, and most everyone else within eyeshot.  It’s not perfect [for example, after Odette’s suicide and von Rothbart’s death, when the remaining swans are presumably released from von Rothbart’s spell, why are they still moving like swans?], but it’s a Swan Lake for our time.

Similarly, for those accustomed to only the best, performances of Odette/Odile, and to a lesser extent Prince Siegfried, have to be the way they’re supposed to be because there’s a right way and a wrong way, and anything that’s not right isn’t worth seeing. The argument goes that ABT is a world class ballet company, and presenting a stage character that’s not fully developed technically or emotionally diminishes the company’s artistic legitimacy and presents the audience with a performance more appropriate for a regional company, or maybe ABT 2. To the contrary, I think it’s essential for a company to be a company, rather than a frame for visiting stars. So while deficiencies can be recognized, I celebrate the opportunity given to a dancer to evolve in a role and improve from year to year, and for audiences to bear witness to the evolution, and only wish more such opportunities were provided.

I found Ms. Seo’s matinee performance yesterday, which was her debut in the role (my understanding is that this was her debut with any company, not just with ABT), to be remarkable for effectively communicating the appropriate emotional components of Odette and Odile. I’ve frequently commented on the ability of Veronika Part and Diana Vishneva to convey the essence of their characters and bring the audience in, and I saw the same quality in Ms. Seo’s performance. Her delicacy and dramatic facility are extraordinary.

Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes in 'Swan Lake' Photo © Gene Schiavone

Hee Seo and Marcelo Gomes in ‘Swan Lake’
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Ms. Seo’s Act II Pas de Deux (Odette) ranks with the finest I’ve seen, and her Act III Pas de Deux (Odile), and her Act IV were not far behind in emotional quality.  This observation holds for her technical facility as well, within the context of the two pas de deux. In the Act II pas de deux, for example, when she bends backward languidly, Ms. Seo uncoiled her body almost imperceptively slowly, as all the great Odettes do. But Ms. Seo continued the movement through to the end of her body, from her neck and head, through her arms, through her back, and most remarkably continuing through her hands and her fingers – separately uncoiling from her hands – until her fingers almost scraped the stage floor. It was like watching slow motion footage of a flower evolving from a bud. She took my breath away. And then she did it again. And her phrasing was remarkable for a first performance. She varied the tempo, added shades of vulnerability, and varied her facial expressions appropriately.

Certainly a lot of credit goes to her Prince Siegfried, Marcelo Gomes, who replaced the injured Alexandre Hammoudi. The change was a fortuitous one for Ms. Seo. As promising as Mr. Hammoudi is, there’s no substitute for dancing with one of the best partners in the world, and Mr. Gomes was at the top of his game yesterday afternoon – with his dancing and acting, as well as his partnering. But to attribute Ms. Seo’s success in the partnered sections of her performance to Mr. Gomes’s partnering alone would diminish what she and others do. Mr. Gomes’s partnering allows his ballerinas to be free. What they do with that freedom is up to them, and Ms. Seo was superb.

Even her Odile was well done. I’m a stickler about Odile – if that role isn’t done right, the entire performance suffers, no matter how great the Odette may be. [In a film clip that I recall seeing, Natalia Makarova, whom I’ve described as my favorite overall Odette/Odile, recognized her deficiency as Odile in early performances, and worked to correct it – which she eventually succeeded in doing.] Ms. Seo was an appropriately enticing Odile – in her way.  I’ve described it as an understated seductiveness.  To some people, that’s an oxymoron. But seductiveness within the context of her character is what’s needed, and Ms. Seo’s lower decibel level produced a beguiling and enigmatic Odile, an Odile that was both sensual and true to her stage character.

However, there is no doubt that a lot of work yet needs to be done. For all her fragility, vulnerability, and dramatic skill, Ms. Seo is not the strongest of dancers – and that was unfortunately clear yesterday. Her solo work (her diagonal following the Act II pas de deux, her swan arms, her fouettes) was problematic, and needs considerable improvement. For those who count fouettes or measure distance traveled across the stage while executing them, or for whom anything less than the liquid arms of Nina Ananiashvilli or the vibrancy and virtuosity of Ms. Vishneva, Ms. Part, or Gillian Murphy are a prerequisite to minimal competence, Ms. Seo’s performance was disappointing. And there was no sense of any nobility to this swan queen; she was a victim – a particularly empathetic victim, but not more. That being said, I see her performance as a glass half full rather than half empty, and all the more extraordinary for a debut.

Ms. Boylston’s performance yesterday evening was half full also – well, to be fair, it was considerably more than half full.

Ms. Boylston is a particularly strong ballerina, which was evident in yesterday evening’s performance.  What Ms. Seo lacked, Ms. Boylston had. But the converse is also true: What Ms. Seo had, Ms. Boylston lacked.

Technically, Ms. Boylston was a fine Odette. She executed well whether with her partner or not – including solid fouettes (several doubles) and very strong turns.  Her Act II entrance had considerably more flourish than Ms. Seo’s; her technical competence in the pas de deux, and the rest of Act II, to this viewer, was clear. In terms of technique, her Odile was similar. She did the steps well.

But to this viewer, what was missing from Ms. Boylston’s performance was the ability to take her portrayal beyond competently executing the steps. Perhaps having seen Ms. Seo’s exquisite sensitivity as Odette only emphasized the absence of it from Ms Boylston. I saw few changes in facial expression, no sense of pathos and no particular sense of regality (strength alone is not regality) in her Odette. Her acting improved in Act IV, but perhaps by then she didn’t have to concentrate so much on doing the steps.

Until the final section of the Act III pas de deux, Ms. Boylston’s Odile was similarly weak in characterization (although improved from her New York debut last year). I found nothing particularly exciting in her Odile; no spark – understated or otherwise – until the pas de deux had nearly ended. Up to that point, her portrayal was one-dimensional.  I know from her previous performances that Ms. Boylston is capable of showing more dramatic flair, so the absence of it was surprising.  And it’s a bit unsettling when the spiciest part of Act III was the passion of her Prince Siegfried, Daniil Simkin, who showed enough hormonal excess to cover the two of them; he was like a 15 year old boy looking at his first Playboy centerfold – wide-eyed, leering, and clueless.

And that’s representative of the difficulty I continue to have with Mr. Simkin’s Siegfried. His partnering is better than last year – he kept her straight (but Ms. Boylston doesn’t need much help), lifted her with apparent ease, and was reasonably attentive. And technically, Mr. Simkin was his usual fabulous self. Rarely is a foot out of place or a line off the mark, and he’s never met a turn he couldn’t milk for two or three revolutions longer than anyone else. His ability to maintain his center is quite amazing – a slight breeze seemingly could keep him turning indefinitely. But to me that has little to do with conveying a sense of nobility, and except for a startlingly good fit between him and his stage mother, Nancy Raffa, I didn’t believe for a second that he was a prince.

From the minute Mr. Simkin appeared on stage, he looked every inch the pampered and petulant teenaged child, from his blown dry hair to his fake and affected attitude. If nobility means acting haughtier than thou, and sticking your chin into the air to emphasize the power of your position, Mr. Simkin’s got it down pat. But I don’t think it is. To me, Mr. Simkin had the air of Geoffrey in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” without the malevolent arrogance. And the deficiency in his portrayal is particularly noticeable when compare it to his Benno, Joseph Gorak, who possesses the innate elegance and nobility that Mr. Simkin lacks.

Again, to be fair, Mr. Simkin has not danced the role for as long a time as other, more successful Siegfrieds (for example, Mr. Gomes and David Hallberg), and his acting did improve considerably in Act IV, when he displayed believable sympathy and heartache. Perhaps good coaching can help, but he may have a tougher job conveying a sense of nobility than Ms. Boylston will in transmitting vulnerability and regality.

Be that as it may, I don’t consider that none of them can yet deliver a fully realized performance to be a reason not to have given either one the opportunity (and in the case of Ms. Boylston, and Mr. Simkin, multiple opportunities) to grow in their roles.

What I consider questionable, and unfortunate, is ABT’s stinginess in providing such leading role opportunities at the Met on a regular basis, and its haste to summon guest artists. It isn’t a matter of ticket sales – both of yesterday’s performances were well attended. And it isn’t a matter of providing the audience with an ABT-quality performance – all of ABT’s dancers, at least at the soloist level (and probably including many dancers in the corps), are capable of quality performances, and relatively few audience members are in a position to compare and contrast individual performances. And if ticket sales are a concern, ABT knows how to build an audience – I note that yesterday’s evening performance (not the matinee) was underwritten by a major corporation, which means at the least that ABT was protected, financially, from the loss of revenue from poor ticket sales (and which may also mean that tickets were sold at reduced rates). That’s commendable – and it underscores ABT’s ability to provide such opportunities to others.

A few final thoughts: Ms. Seo appeared at her performance, to me at least, to have lost a considerable amount of weight, and looked – again, maybe just to me – painfully thin. [Perhaps it was only apparent here because in other performances this season her costume covered her upper body.] There seemed to be no diminution in her energy level, and I don’t want to raise unnecessary (and probably unwarranted) alarms, but I mention this only as a point of concern.

Additionally, with respect to other portrayals at yesterday’s performances: those of the two von Rothbarts, Sascha Radetsky in the matinee and Jared Matthews in the evening, were very good (and Mr. Matthews has advanced to the point where he knows he’s seducing the audience as well as the characters onstage). The two von Rothbarts in the lizard suit (Mr. McKenzie bifurcates the role), Thomas Forster and Roman Zhurbin at the same respective performances, were very good as well in their more limited roles. The pas de trois was nicely done by Devon Teuscher, Christine Shevchenko, and Blaine Hoven in the matinee, and by Misty Copeland, Simone Messmer, and Mr. Gorak in the evening. The matinee’s ‘Two Swans’ (aka ‘Big Swans’), Karen Uphoff and Nicola Curry, were fine, as were the evening’s Melanie Hamrick and Ms. Shevchenko. And corps dancers Elina Meittinen, Marian Butler, Nicole Graniero and Gemma Bond were super Cygnets, as were Skylar Brandt and Luciana Paris in the evening (Ms. Meittinen, whom I have not previously highlighted, has grown considerably in apparent confidence over the past two years, and her presence lights up the stage). However, as was the case last year, it appears to me to have been unnecessarily and unreasonably cruel to have had soloists Sarah Lane and Yuriko Kajiya join Ms. Brandt and Ms. Paris as the evening’s Cygnets.

The benefits of liberalizing casting opportunities was exemplified in yesterday’s performances. Swans aren’t hatched fully grown (and most princes require some amount of stage-maturing process). Whether Ms. Seo or Ms. Boylston (or Mr. Simkin) will grow into their roles over time is not knowable, but it’s a chance worth taking. Whether other highly competent soloists are able to do the same would be a chance worth taking as well.  In the long run, this may be more rewarding for audiences and for ABT as a company than importing guest artists who have been provided with such opportunities by their ‘home’ companies, have had time to evolve, and who can be presented as more ‘complete’ artists as guests with ABT for that reason.