American Ballet Theatre: Swan Lake

Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY
June 24(m), 2015

Jerry Hochman

Aside from being the most well-known ballet even to people who know nothing of ballet, Swan Lake comes with baggage. This includes the details and location of the story, the characterization of the Swan Queen and her evil body double, the Black Swan, and the choreography that has developed over time as part and parcel of the Petipa/Ivanov 1895 revival, which is considered the Swan Lake template. While audiences have grown accustomed to changes of venue, the characterization of Odette and Odile and the execution of the choreography must be just so. Odette has to be a regal swan queen, but one with sadness and pathos dripping from every pore while at the same time, not pushing toward melodramatic and pathetic. Odile must be sensuous and convincing enough to seduce a stone. And like the Rose Adagio in The Sleeping Beauty, her 32 fouettés are a true test, and must be done completely and correctly or the performance is fatally flawed.

Misty Copeland’s New York debut in Swan Lake on Wednesday afternoon didn’t show much of this performance baggage. If you came to Copeland’s performance thinking you’d see an Odette/Odile of cosmic proportions, or one that would promise to eventually rival those of ABT’s principal ballerinas who dance the role brilliantly, or even one that looked reasonably close but isn’t quite there yet, you would have felt disappointed. But if you look at Swan Lake somewhat differently, and don’t go with the usual performance expectations (and can somehow overlook doing just half the ‘usual’ number of fouettés, and doing those that she did not very well), it was…different. More than adequate, and completely sufficient for the audience, which largely came to see her dancing Swan Lake, not Swan Lake.

Whether Copeland’s performance was successful, therefore, depends on your point of view. Judged on whether she delivered an Odette/Odile consistent with the expectation level in a high caliber ballet company, it missed the mark.  Judged on whether she delivered a performance adequate to convey the story and the characters, it was a promising soloist-level performance. Significant not just because Copeland danced it, but because, intentionally or not, it was different.

From the outset, you knew that one matter that negatively impacted her Juliet on June 20 would not be an issue with her Swan Queen. In the brief Prologue that Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie’s production uses to provide the predicate to the story, Alexandre Hammoudi, who portrayed the human incarnation of von Rothbart, picked Copeland up and twirled her around as if she was a toothpick.

In Act II, the first White Act (which follows seamlessly and without intermission from the Prologue and Act I in this production), Copeland did the steps. That is, she executed the choreography thoroughly and completely (no small accomplishment). But she didn’t make it sing the way an optimal performance of this choreography would, or to the level one might expect from a third outing. Although she wore an appropriately mournful face throughout, and did a particularly fine job with the mime, there was little sense of regality or pathos.

Curiously though, dancing the role with little pathos and no melodrama, intentionally or not, made the story, simple, straightforward, and accessible to her audience. The absence of excessive pathos was almost refreshing, and her swan arms weren’t bad at all. And again, here and throughout the ballet, she was partnered well by her Prince Siegfried, James Whiteside.

Copeland’s Odile was danced similarly to her Odette: that is, without adding anything to the choreography beyond the steps. Consequently, I found it lacking the essential sensuality that one routinely finds in performances by more experienced ballerinas. On the other hand, perhaps as a result of not adding anything, she cannot be accused of overdoing it. She played the role very properly, and without a pasted-on smile or leer. And to her credit, she knew what she was supposed to do – including taking her instructions from von Rothbart (which many ballerinas gloss over or convert to telepathy). The repeated sequencing from one to the other, and then her choreographic changes as a result, were transparent and well done. To anyone with ballet training, her characterization was, at most, merely adequate, but it was certainly sufficient to her audience.

But then there were the fouettés.

Completing the fouettés is an essential component of this ballet, though I don’t consider bravura execution to be the be all and end all of a performance. But Copeland’s issue here was a significant one, and didn’t have a brilliant overall performance to balance it. It’s one thing to not be able to complete 32 fouettés; it’s another to complete maybe 16, and travel halfway downstage and to stage right in the process. But it’s a completely different thing not to even try.  It appeared to me that Copeland planned it this way – she shifted immediately after the 16th (or maybe the 15th or 14th) to a series of turns that looked similar to fouettés, but weren’t, keeping the essential shape of the movement and keeping time with the music. I think what she ended up doing were consecutive single pirouettes with her right leg swung higher than usual, so that the action mimicked fouettés. Her audience, didn’t see any difference. They roared their approval.

So what’s the significance of this?  Her performance lacked the technical expertise or the characterization as we have come to know it. But it was sufficient to convey both the story and her character(s). Odette and Odile are mythological creations, not ‘real’ people, so their appearance, actions, and consequently her performance does not necessarily have to be tethered to a particular vision, even though that’s the baggage this ballet travels with. And perhaps most importantly, the audience, which was devoted to Copeland from the first moment, understood the story Copeland was telling, and didn’t care how she got there. So hers was an exceptional Swan Lake (as in, an exception from the norm).

In other roles, Whiteside’s Siegfried was capable; his partnering was quite good, but he was relatively wooden in characterization. Hammoudi was a fine partner, but lacked the polish and power of others who have assayed the role.  The pas de trois, danced by Christine Shevchenko, Devon Teuscher, and Calvin Royal, was excellent.