David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; July 15, 2014

Jerry Hochman

David Hallberg as Prince Siegfried and Svetlana Zakharova as Odette in the Bolshoi Ballet's 'Swan Lake'.  Photo © Stephanie Berger

David Hallberg as Prince Siegfried and Svetlana Zakharova as Odette in the Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Stephanie Berger

Bolshoi means ‘big’, and everything was BIG in New York last night. Big lightning, and thunder you could hear inside the DHK Theater, big torrential rain and flash flooding, and a big performance by the Bolshoi Ballet, which began its two week, sold out, residency at the Lincoln Center Festival with perhaps the biggest of ballets, “Swan Lake”, with its biggest star ballerina, Svetlana Zhakarova, dancing Odette/Odile, and as Prince Siegfried, its biggest recent acquisition, American Ballet Theatre’s David Hallberg.

I have nothing but praise for the performances by the Bolshoi Ballet dancers. All, including Ms. Zakharova and Mr. Hallberg, danced with extraordinary brilliance – although here Prince Siegfried is not the dominant male dancing character. The production, by former Artistic Director Yuri Grigorovich, is uneven, but overall quite interesting.

First, there was something else ‘BIG’ at last night’s performance: the Bolshoi Ballet orchestra.

Normally, if a ballet review focuses initially on the sets, costumes or conducting, it means that something’s wrong with the dancers’ performances or the choreography. That’s not the case here. But the orchestral sound and pace at last night’s performance was so refreshing it needs to be acknowledged up front.

What a pleasure it was to hear the Tchaikovsky score played so perfectly. From the overture’s opening through to the end, the sound was brighter, crisper, more thunderously passionate than I can remember hearing at a “Swan Lake” performance ever before. And it wasn’t just the ‘Russian soul’ emerging in greater force when the Tchaikovsky music is played by a Russian orchestra. That may be the case – but it was also something more concrete: the pacing; the tempo. Under the baton of Pavel Sorokin, the music was alive. It moved – fast. Even the dancing in the ‘white acts’, which often is played by the orchestra like a dirge, was propelled forward, with a sense of urgency, as if delaying the next musical phrase a second longer than necessary would violate the composer’s trust. And, for once, the conductor repeatedly (and appropriately) led the dancers, challenging them to their maximum capabilities. Would that American conductors, particularly those at ABT, display less reverence to each note in the composition, and less deference to each dancer’s anticipated proficiency, and more of this Russian spirit.

Svetlana Zakharova as Odile.  Photo © Stephanie Berger

Svetlana Zakharova as Odile.
Photo © Stephanie Berger

It’s been nine years since I’ve seen Ms. Zakharova, when she appeared with the Bolshoi in New York in “Don Quixote” and “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” (and a year before that, as a guest artist with ABT as Nikiya in “La Bayadère”). She’s still a stunning-looking ballerina, even partially masked by ‘swan’ earmuffs, and still a fabulous technician – strong as iron, with jaw-dropping extensions and leaps. Her legs zoom up like rockets, and her fluidity is unencumbered by bones.

That having been said, there’s a coldness, a distance, to her performances as Odette and Odile that I’ve observed previously in other roles. Her characterization is limited to what’s conveyed in the steps – similar to that of Polina Semionova a few weeks ago in the same dual role with ABT (though Zakharova was much less languid). It was a stunning technical display, one that I would see again in a heartbeat, but it was an image of a character (actually two characters), not a ‘real’ character.

But then, this version of “Swan Lake” isn’t ‘realistic’ the way ABT’s production is. Mr. Grigorovich’s concept reduces the ‘swan’ part of the story to a dream. Essentially, while pondering his loneliness, Prince Siegfried dreams of something different; something better. In that dream, he succumbs to the pull of an ‘Evil Genius’, who is a creation of his mind, and led to a lake of swans over which the Evil Genius rules, where he falls in love with the Swan Queen, and subsequently is tricked by a Black Swan into declaring his love for her, thereupon losing the woman of his dreams forever. When his dream ends, the Prince slowly walks downstage, Albrecht-like, wondering if it all was just…a dream.

Whether this ‘dream’ concept is Mr. Grigorovich’s, or a derivation from a prior version (the program credits the libretto to him, after the ‘scenario’ by Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Geltser) doesn’t matter. It works because it facilitates the built-in duality between Odette and Odile as two sides of the same ‘ideal’ woman, which might well be a component of the Prince’s ‘dream’ of an ideal mate – perhaps more than in a staging that’s more ‘realistic’, where the duality may come across as more contrived and intellectualized. And it’s a theme echoed in the intriguing sets by Simon Versaladze, which includes a cocoon-like holding area, decorated so that the black swan and white swan appear to be virtual mirror images of each other. It also avoids the problem of what to do with Odette – there’s neither suicide nor a happily-ever-after. She just remains trapped in the Evil Genius’s lair; and trapped within Siegfried’s dream.

The Bolshoi Ballet's 'Swan Lake'.  Photo © Stephanie Berger

The Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Stephanie Berger

Aside from this overall ‘dream’ concept, this version is annoying – parts of it are really good, and parts of it not. The court dances that form the backbone of the first part of Act I (there are two acts, each with two scenes – although not delineated as such) are both intricate and lively, and the dances for the swans in the ‘white acts’ are beautifully staged. And the character dances are flat out fabulous. Each is led by one of the visiting princesses auditioning for the prince. So not only are the dances themselves not your typical forgettable copy-cat folk dances (here they’re dances ‘inspired’ by folk idioms), but they also serve as vehicles for the ballerina princesses to display their own dancing skill.But there’s an overall stodginess to the production. Until the dances get going, whatever movement there is looks stiff. Part of it is Petipa, but it’s also the staging. Every position, every gesture, not only is fixed – it looks fixed. Perhaps this works for Russian audiences, but to me it looks antiquated and artificial. And the concept of the Fool (the Jester), which I presume is adapted from additions to the original made by Alexander Gorsky, is particularly bothersome. It serves a purpose – the ‘tricks’ are done by the Fool (as well as, to a lesser degree, by the Evil Genius) – leaving the Prince to simply be princely. But the Fool’s presence only emphasizes the relative rigidity of the staging around him, and detracts from the Prince, in effect, making him a more cardboard, and to some extent secondary, character.

As Prince Siegfried, Mr. Hallberg looked…princely. Since joining the Bolshoi, as I’ve previously observed, his partnering has improved significantly, and here it was flawless. His solo dancing was somewhat subdued, but that’s the nature of this production. But when he did dance (rather than ‘just’ partner), Mr. Hallberg displayed a degree of enthusiasm previously unseen – he appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself, particularly during the pas de trois and the first part of the black swan pas de deux.

Igor Tsvirko as The Fool in the Bolshoi Ballet's Swan Lake.  Photo © Stephanie Berger

Igor Tsvirko as The Fool..
Photo © Stephanie Berger

Igor Tsvirko, a Soloist, played the Fool with appropriate androgynous swagger. There was little characterization, but characterization isn’t the point of the role – the tricks are, and in that respect he was spectacular.

The concept of the Evil Genius, at least in this production, is quite different from that in ‘von Rothbart’ versions, whether the character is a ‘human’ or some ‘creature’ (or, as in the ABT version, both). Here the character is more of a force, albeit a humanoid one, and Vladislav Lantrotov was the embodiment of evil energy, and the Prince’s worst nightmare. But other than looking evil and being allowed some bravura dancing, he is more a foil to Siegfried than a ‘real’ character. And in the critical ‘black swan’ scene (the first part of Act II), he’s just part of the woodwork.

Aside from Ms. Zakharova and Mr. Hallberg, the most interesting performances were those danced by Siegfried’s ‘friends’ in the pas de trois, and by the five princesses. In the former, Kristina Kretova (a Leading Soloist), and particularly Maria Vinogradova, a Soloist, gave top notch, thrilling performances, and Mr. Hallberg appeared energized in their company. I would like to see Ms. Vinogradova assay other roles to gauge her acting ability, but based on her performance last night, she’s a superb dancer.

The ‘national dances’ are brilliantly choreographed, and are vehicles for particularly interesting and exciting dancing by each of the princesses: Yulia Grebenshchikova (Hungarian Bride), Anna Rebetskaya (Russian Bride); Anna Tikhomirova (Spanish Bride); Daria Khokhlova (Neapolitan Bride); and Yanina Parienko (Polish Bride) – Ms. Tikhomirova is a First Soloist, the others are Soloists. I particularly liked the Hungarian dance (a mini-Raymonda); the Russian dance (to music that the ABT production uses for von Rothbart’s Act III solo); and the smoldering Spanish dance.

The program does not identify the court dancers (in this production there are no peasants), the swans (except for the cygnets and ‘Big Swans’), or the character dancers, but the company as a whole danced very well – and, as I observed nine years ago (when the company was led by Alexei Ratmansky), looks younger and more dynamic than it had under Mr. Grigorovich’s leadership, when I first saw it in New York. Except for stylistic differences, which of course are significant, the company now looks more…American.