Metropolitan Opera House, NY, NY; June 21, 2013

Jerry Hochman

Friday’s American Ballet Theatre performance of “Swan Lake” featured debuts in the two lead roles. Herman Cornejo danced Prince Siegfried for the first time with the ABT, and Maria Kochetkova danced Odette/Odile, also for the first time with ABT. Each delivered a very fine performance.

Mr. Cornejo joined American Ballet Theatre in 1999, and was promoted to principal dancer in 2003. Although I understand that he has on occasion danced Prince Siegfried with other companies (I do not know the number of times), Mr. Cornejo has never been previously cast as Prince Siegfried by ABT. One can speculate as to why it has taken so long for this debut, but it was worth the wait.

Long known and celebrated for his technical brilliance, I am aware of concerns that he might not be able to convey the appropriate character in roles requiring a noble bearing. Although the criteria for being a danseur noble have become relatively fluid of late, any such concern vanished immediately upon Mr. Cornejo’s Act I entrance. He was a prince – not just by hereditary entitlement, but by his demeanor. He was welcoming, gracious, and at the same time in command. The classiness was real. It was a super entrance, and his portrayal continued at a high level as the performance progressed.

Technically, Mr. Cornejo has in recent years developed classy technique as well. By that I mean that although he’s always been a fabulous dancer with extraordinary technical abilities, he has toned down his tricks so that they appear to be in keeping with whatever role he’s portraying.  He still appears to leap as high and turn as quickly as he has in the past – but he’s not showing off. What he demonstrates now is a performance of a fully formed character, not a performance highlighted by brilliant but superficial bravura bursts. And he partnered Ms. Kochetkova without difficulty.

My only criticisms of Mr. Cornejo’s performance are with respect to his interaction with the Princesses in Act III – he was more detached than he should have been for someone looking for a bride and not at all animated in his conversations with the Princesses as each presented her country’s dances, and in his Act IV I saw no sense of concern or fear of loss in his demeanor. But these are relatively minor quibbles. It was a very fine debut.

Ms. Kochetkova’s debut as a guest artist (replacing Alina Cojocaru, also a guest artist, who withdrew because of injury) was better than very fine. Her years of experience provided her with a remarkable level of apparent comfort in the roles of both Odette and Odile.

Born in Moscow and trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School, and a principal with San Francisco Ballet since 2007, Ms. Kochetkova has had a wealth of performing opportunities. She first came to my attention as one of the dancers in the Youth America Grand Prix film “Ballet’s Greatest Hits,” and as a performer in the annual YAGP gala this past April, but by that time she had already danced with the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet, and (according to her biography on the SFB website) she has performed as a guest artist with the Bolshoi and Stanislavsky Theaters in Moscow, the Mariinsky and Mikhailovsky Theaters in St. Petersburg and the Tokyo Ballet in Japan. Again according to the SFB website, her classical repertoire includes the title role in Giselle, Aurora in “The Sleeping Beauty”, Kitri in “Don Quixote”, Juliet in “Romeo & Juliet”, Odette-Odile in “Swan Lake”, Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker”, Tatiana in John Cranko’s “Onegin”, Swanilda in George Balanchine’s “Coppelia”, the leads in the Emeralds and Rubies segments of Balachine’s “Jewels”, the title role in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Alice in Wonderland”, and she created the title role in Mr. Wheeldon’s “Cinderella”. And those are only the tip of her performance iceberg.

With that background, one would have expected nothing less than a top-notch performance, and it very nearly was.

It would be easiest to reference deficiencies first, because there were few. Her Act II entrance was a ‘walk-in’, and looked dull compared to the entrances of other Odettes in this production. Her exit in Act II was no different from that of other Odettes – given her experience level, one would have expected some extended ‘pull’ between her and von Rothbart on one side, and Siegfried on the other (and an exit facing the audience, rather than with her back to the audience, would have been less ordinary – but that’s rarely done). She very nearly turned into the wings at one point (just barely remaining on stage) – but that probably was a result of lack of familiarity with the Met’s stage dimensions (and I could see her mentally measuring distances thereafter and adjusting her steps to avoid any recurrence). And the usual flying leap off the cliff to her death in Act IV looked like a dead weight belly wop. [Mr. Cornejo flew in after her.]

But in every other respect, Ms. Kochetkova’s performance was either very good or excellent, soup to nuts. Her execution, both technically and in terms of characterization, was spot on. She performed the steps with no apparent flaws (although not completely indicative of technical prowess, her swan arms were fine, and her fouettes were admirable – every other was a double). And she certainly conveyed the character of both Odette and Odile clearly and appropriately, and varied her expression throughout. She wasn’t as vulnerable or regal or nuanced as Diana Vishneva or Veronika Part, for example, or as technically spectacular as Gillian Murphy, and for me her performance did not reach the excitement level that is achieved by those ballerinas and others, but there is no question that it was a commendable performance by ABT’s latest guest artist.

The remainder of the cast was essentially identical to that of Wednesday evening’s performance, which I previously reviewed.