Opera House, Boston, MA; October 31, 2014
On Halloween, when most of the world is focused on ghosts, witches, and jack o’lanterns, Boston Ballet presented its sumptuous new production of “Swan Lake”. That night Ashley Ellis made her debut as swan queen, and although plenty of tricks went into creating a variety of special effects onstage, the evening as a whole can only be described as the treat of a lifetime. With that performance Ellis entered the ranks of the greatest ballerinas in the world and took her place in history.
It is difficult to put into words just how magnificent she was, how moving as Odette and compelling as Odile. Her technique, which surpassed mere perfection, allowed her not only to inhabit the characters but also to embody the music. When deploying her awe-inspiring technique, Ellis created an impression similar to the simultaneous exhilaration and devastation one feels at the end of “King Lear” or “Hamlet” or Garbo’s “Anna Karenina”. In the play “Red” by John Logan, artist Mark Rothko says, “I’m here to stop your heart.” Ellis did.
The most unforgettable moment of the ballet occurred in the coda of the Act II variation. I had been grappling with the question of why that music sounds so angry. Ellis taught me that it’s not anger but assertiveness. The traveling arabesques of the corps reflect Odette’s determination to love Siegfried come what may, and her ensuing frenzy of relevés on pointe indicate her hope that if she uses every bit of her will to fight the forces arrayed against her, she can triumph over fate and cheat death. We in the audience know she’s doomed, as we all are, because nobody gets out of this life alive. It was such a poignant moment – a combination of resolve and despair that I found tremendously moving.
All this doesn’t even begin to address the incredible delicacy and intricacy of her port de bras, the way she used several variations of her swan arms and never let us forget she was a bird. It doesn’t touch on the powerful yet seductive attack of her Odile; as Von Rothbart’s daughter she was like a force of nature. The prince was so impassive in the face of Odile’s machinations that I began to root for her. “Sock it to him; he deserves it,” I found myself thinking. And did she ever!
Objections have been raised to artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s addition of the pas de cinq in Act III because it has no connection to the plot. It is, however, a pleasant enough interlude, and it has an important secondary function. Along with the character dances, it allows the principal ballerina to recover from Act II. When Ellis made her entrance as Odile, she seemed fresh as a daisy and rarin’ to go. Thank you, Mr. Nissinen, for giving her that extra time to regroup. In fact, Ellis’s energy never flagged. If “Swan Lake” is the ballerina’s marathon, she ran the perfect race.
As the prince Eris Nezha was less animated than I have seen him before, and he visibly tired in Act III. His Act I solo was well done, however, and he was a reliable partner. All those overhead lifts were rock solid.
As Von Rothbart, Sabi Varga was mesmerizing. He’s one of the few performers I know who can stand onstage doing nothing and still be a riveting presence. He was effectively the star of the new prologue in which Von Rothbart, an attractive young nobleman, kidnaps Odette. In her struggle to free herself from his clutches, Odette ends up lying on the floor facing the audience, at which point Von Rothbart drags her upstage by the foot. When that happened, the astonished look on the face of Odette, played by a corps member during the prologue, was priceless. Varga was so charismatic in this role that I thought perhaps Odette ought to ditch the prince for him. At least, it seemed to me, life with Von Rothbart would never be dull.
Other dancers that caught my eye were Roddy Doble in the pas de cinq (wonderful lines and always so happy to be onstage), Patrick Yocum in the Spanish dance (beautiful details in the use of his head and hands), Marcus Romeo and Altan Dugaraa in the Czardas, Ricardo Santos in Neapolitan, and Joseph Steinauer in the Mazurka. Boyko Dossev as the tutor was, as usual, a welcome presence; he’s a wonderfully believable comedian.
In the pas de trois (Act I) and Czardas, I especially loved newly promoted principal Whitney Jensen. The way she uses her head and neck to interpret movements as she performs them makes everything she does interesting to watch. I hope she’ll have the opportunity to play Odette-Odile next time around, and I’m looking forward to her Sugar Plum this season.
In the extraordinary new décor created by Robert Perdziola, my favorite piece of scenery was the backdrop for Act III. When I wrote about his sets for the new production of “The Nutcracker” (which premiered last year), I mentioned that some of them seemed rather two-dimensional. I understand now that the goal was to keep them simple so that the dancers would have more room to move, the stage of the Opera House being much smaller than that of the Wang Theatre (the company’s former home). In the Act III backdrop Perdziola found a brilliant compromise between maintaining open space and providing visual interest; he used trompe l’oeil to create depth. The backdrop featured walls in extreme perspective that emanated from a central column and were decorated with painted tapestries, frescoed ceilings, and an abundance of architectural ornaments – gorgeous.
The various uses of fog were also successful. When the curtain rose on Act IV, the swan maidens were onstage in a collapsed position on the floor, but all the audience saw was the mist rising off the lake; the dancers were completely invisible. After the music started, the maidens lifted their heads up out of the mist, and the effect was so stunning the entire audience gasped. At the end of Act IV, Odette, rather than jumping off a cliff, ended her life by plunging into an upstage wall of mist, and the prince soon followed her. It was a very convincing effect, but the fog was so thick that one worried about whether the dancers could exit the stage safely. Apparently, they did.
In this ballet the female corps functions both as a character in its own right and as a means of conveying Odette’s psychological states. The Boston Ballet corps was beautifully disciplined, with lovely port de bras and the ability to create onstage patterns with military precision. Credit goes not only to the dancers but also to the ballet masters that helped create this accomplished ensemble.
One quibble I have with the production is the ending. In most versions either Von Rothbart dies and the spell is broken or Von Rothbart lives and the spell continues. In this version the sorcerer seems to die through the sheer force of Odette’s goodness (I didn’t see anybody actually kill him), but Odette and Siegfried still throw themselves into the lake. Now, I’m as willing as the next guy to suspend my disbelief, but it seems to me you can’t have it both ways.
Although there may have been some confusion about the ultimate fate of the principal characters onstage, no such perplexities obtained in the pit. In a successful production of “Swan Lake”, the music is so intimately connected with the performers that it becomes a challenge to view them as separate entities. For me the violin solo in the Act II pas de deux was an exception to that rule. Concertmaster Michael Rosenbloom gave it the kind of generosity of breath that enabled Ellis to expand every movement to its utmost in communicating both her enslavement to Von Rothbart and desire to be free. Ballet master (and former Boston Ballet principal dancer) Larissa Ponomarenko, who coached all the ballerinas that appeared as Odette-Odile, once said to me that in ballet “we’re telling a story by speaking with our bodies.” In this pas de deux, Ellis, Nezha, and Rosenbloom told the story together. Bravo.
Jonathan McPhee, principal conductor of the Boston Ballet Orchestra, has commented that because of the symphonic nature of Tchaikovsky’s score, it was thought to be undanceable when first introduced to the public in 1877. It took Petipa and Ivanov to prove that, contrary to popular opinion, the composer had actually opened up new possibilities for dance theatre. All honor to Maestro McPhee and the Boston Ballet Orchestra for both supporting the dancers and bringing the score to life in such a masterful way.