American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

July 10, July 12 afternoon and evening, July 13, 2023
Swan Lake

Jerry Hochman

The third week of ABT’s 2023 Met Season, aka ABT’s Greatest Hits, was filled by eight performances of its current version of Swan Lake.

While this Swan Lake, not unlike other companies’ incarnations, continues to be bullet-proof (it’s an almost guaranteed sell-out, regardless of cast), its quality is undeniable. Choreographed by Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, this production has been criticized for taking liberties with some of the “standard” choreography, but to me the changes (particular in Act IV) benefit the performance as a whole. This Swan Lake moves things along expeditiously (and with only one intermission) and eliminates unnecessary duplication, yielding a far more contemporary sensibility than more orthodox versions without altering the ballet’s impact in the least. On the contrary, the audience impact of these changes is enhanced. My only critical comments, which are minimal, relate to Odette’s entrance in Act II – I prefer those productions where she leaps in from the wings; and, in Act IV, to having the swans continue displaying swan arms through Odette and Siegfried’s apotheosis, even though by then the spell that had imprisoned them as swans had been broken by von Rothbart’s death.

I attended four Swan Lake performances this season: Monday July 10, Wednesday afternoon and evening July 12, and July 13. But, since Gillian Murphy, who was to lead Wednesday afternoon’s performance, was reportedly injured and replaced by the same ballerina I’d seen on Monday (the rest of the Wednesday afternoon cast was unchanged), I only saw three Odette/ Odiles, with four Prince Siegfrieds.

Assuming the reader’s familiarity with the story and this production, this review, as was the case with my recent review of Giselle, will focus primarily on the performances I saw: the Odette/ Odiles and Prince Siegfrieds, of course, as well as the von Rothbarts (hereafter just “Rothbart”), the Pas de Trois dancers, and portrayals of a few other noteworthy characters. I choose to do so in some depth because these portrayals are as significant to the success of a particular narrative ballet at least as much, if not more, as other contributing factors, and they merit more than passing acknowledgment.

American Ballet Theatre in Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Initially, however, I feel compelled to provide a cautionary note. While I’m convinced that I can fairly evaluate a performance, I recognize that some subjective considerations are necessarily a component of such evaluations, and the basis for those considerations may not seem as significant to others as they are to me.

As an experienced member of the ballet audience, I’ve grown to believe that ballet is more than dancing the steps perfectly. Perhaps analyzing step/ combination execution can be solely objective, though I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. But especially in a narrative ballet, more than getting the steps right is necessary – and at this level, getting the steps “right” shouldn’t be an issue anyway … most of the time. [And I learned early on that, generally, if a piece of choreography isn’t danced properly, it doesn’t look right – and that if a performance is impressive, any minor technical error is immaterial.] I don’t think that a largely subjective analysis of a performance is wrong, but others may disagree – especially those who see only one performance of a ballet and have little or no basis for comparison.

I say all this because with respect to the dual role of Odette/ Odile, I observed significant differences between one and the other two I saw, as well as some of the many I’ve seen over the years.

I’ll consider the performances roughly in role/ date order.

The Odette/ Odiles

When I first saw Isabella Boylston in performance, I immediately recognized that she had extraordinary technical command, strength, and most of all, confidence, and singled her out for that reason long before she became a Soloist, much less a Principal. Although those qualities can at times translate into a “hard-edged” and self-centered performance, generally they’re meritorious qualities to have, ones that many ballerinas, at least when they begin to get featured roles, often lack, resulting at times in a somewhat “tentative” looking performance. Over the years, Boylston’s qualities in this respect have only increased – I’ve frequently commented that Boylston dances as if she owns the stage, and is so strong that she doesn’t seem to need a partner. In everything I’ve seen her dance, she’s always fully in command of her abilities and the stage.

But there are other qualities too which, especially compared to the two other Odette/ Odile performances I saw during this run (and more than I can count over the years), Boylston continues to lack. They can be summed up as “characterization.” It’s not that she can’t act: she’s shown that she can. [Following her performance in La Fille Mal Gardee in 2016 (to my recollection ABT hasn’t presented it since) I wrote that her Lise was superb in every respect, and was her best role to date. Her acting there was a major component of her performance’s success.] But there seems to be a block when it comes to certain roles, including Odette and, most obviously, Odile.

It’s been several years since I last viewed Boylston’s Swan Lake (the last time was in 2019), so I decided I’d renew the acquaintance this season.

Isabella Boylston, Daniel Camargo,
and American Ballet Theatre
in Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Boylston’s meritorious qualities have evolved to be even more impressive over time, but her characterization hasn’t – at least not with respect to Odette/ Odile. And particularly with respect to Odile, her characterization took a step back.

Both at her scheduled performance and on Wednesday afternoon when she replaced Murphy, Boylston’s Odette was technically phenomenal. Never any hesitation; never any combination cut short; her mime was a model of clarity; no extension or arabesque that wasn’t perfectly formed and held, and that didn’t soar beyond anatomical limits. And she still owns the stage. Not only does it still look like she doesn’t need a partner, I’m beginning to think she could do the lifts on her own as well.

But her Odette registered little in the way of emotion. I noticed a weak, passing smile at one point and what I could see as an equally passing look of gratitude in Act II, but, except for Act IV, to which every ballerina in the role adds greater emotional accent, everything else appeared relatively flat and stoic. Not even a sense of pathos (although that’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it’s so often overbaked).

And this was the way I described her Odette as far back as 2013: “…what was missing from Ms. Boylston’s performance was the ability to take her portrayal beyond competently executing the steps….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.” There’s a sense of regality now because she still exudes massive confidence, and the passing years have given that same quality a patina of gravitas – but there’s a trade-off: her “young princess” in the Prologue looked not in the least the image of the fragile, vulnerable young princess that pulls the audience in from the start.

Nevertheless, I know that any visible display of emotion by Odette may be considered superfluous by some, and Boylston – even more on Wednesday than on Monday – made the choreography sing. So although I don’t consider her Odette to be exceptional (except technically), it was certainly beyond merely satisfactory.

Her Odile is another matter entirely.

Technically, Boylston’s Act III was incomparable, featuring superb timing, placement, and extensions and arabesques that seemed to stretch beyond human capability. The only technical “flaw” I observed was with respect to the Act III fouettes: she did them well and with relatively little drift, and completed the full “standard” complement of 32, but there was far less bravura flair than I’ve seen in her Odiles previously: there were no doubles until the concluding turn, and no port de bras variation until that final double at the end – and then she simply raised her arms over her head. Most contemporary ballerinas add more. But in the overall scheme of things, that’s not significant: she did what she needed to do extremely well.

But that’s as far as it went.

I’ve written before that I’m a stickler about Odile. Even the best of Odettes, Natalia Makarova, acknowledged at one point that Odile is a tougher role than Odette, and that she needed to work on hers over time to improve it. [While there are a number of contenders, Makarova’s may be the finest Odette I’ve seen. The best Odile I can recall, which I’ve also mentioned before, was Birgit Keil, in one of the what-used-to-be frequent visits of the Stuttgart Ballet to New York in the 1970s.]

(l-r) Chloe Misseldine, Sung Woo Han, and SunMi Park
and American Ballet Theatre
in Keven McKenzie’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

In order to be a successful Odile, the ballerina must seduce not only Siegfried but the audience as well. And while “seduction” may mean different things to different people, it’s certainly more than one or two levels of “smile.” But that’s all I saw here. Everything else about Boylston’s Odile characterization was relatively flat, and essentially unchanged since that 2013 performance. I wrote then: “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 noted in my 2019 review that Boylston’s Odile had improved from what I’d seen from her in that role previously, but I didn’t even see that level of improvement here.

I regurgitate all this not to be overly critical, and those who only saw her outing(s) this season would likely have considered it masterful. [Indeed, I must acknowledge that the audiences at both her performances rose en masse at the end (as they do for all the Swan Lake performances I saw), and with great enthusiasm.] Rather, it’s to lament the absence of characterization progress. Boylston is a top-flight ballerina, and she’s capable of showing emotion, so I suspect she’s satisfied with all aspects of her performance, and doesn’t want, doesn’t believe she needs, or doesn’t know how, to make it better. I believe she can.

And, to my eye, it suffered further in comparison to the NYC role debut of Catherine Hurlin that Wednesday evening, and, in her second NYC outing, Skylar Brandt the following night.

Catherine Hurlin, James Whiteside,
and American Ballet Theatre
in Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Hurlin delivered another (following her NYC debut as Giselle the previous week) unexpectedly miraculous performance. She didn’t exude the same strength as Boylston, but to me that’s a plus – her Odette looked far more vulnerable without any technical sacrifice or undue pathos. Her mime was crystalline, and she added sufficiently nuanced expression to avoid looking in any way monochromatic.

That Hurlin’s Odile was as good as it was was less expected – at least by me. She displayed the requisite technical competence and command – essential for the role. But Hurlin seemed to know instinctively what it means, in terms of transmitted visual expression, to seduce. It wasn’t limited to a couple of degrees of “smile”: it was a combination of her apparent stage attitude, her lightly-sneering/ inviting smile, her piercing eyes, and her body posture. She executed the steps with flourish (including the requisite Coda fouettes, with doubles every fourth or so). Although she abandoned the fouettes at 28 or 29 by my unofficial and not necessarily reliable count, any such minimal reduction had no impact on the quality of her overall performance.

Hurlin will add more nuance as time and further performance opportunities allow, but what she showed here is already one of the finest of NYC Odette/ Odile role debuts.

And then there was Brandt on Thursday evening.

Brandt’s debut a year ago was everything one could hope an Odette/ Odile could be, with technical facility and expression that, whether for a role debut or not, were extraordinarily well conceived. But since nuance is fleeting and often depends on a dancer’s state of mind within the particular performance (that often-referenced quality of being “in the moment”), I feared that this sophomore NYC outing would be less impressive.

And at the beginning, with her Act II Odette, I thought that might have been the case. Technically Brandt did everything correctly, displaying yet more technical facility than a year ago as well as her well-honed appearance of vulnerability; but, although expression was certainly an effective component of her Act II portrayal, I didn’t see the variety of expression I recalled having seen previously. Nevertheless, hers was still a very impressive Odette, one that pressed all the requisite emotional buttons.

Skylar Brand and Herman Cornejo
in Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Her Odile began the same way. That is, I missed the degree of seduction I recalled being so extraordinary previously, particularly for a role debut. At that time, she showed expression and nuance, all appropriate, that I’d never before seen from any ballerina in the role, including one during which she appeared to glide her hand along Siegfried’s arm, tempting him further even as she was teasingly pulling herself away. That amazing little one or two second action was absent here. And her expression overall was at a lower decibel level – perhaps, I thought, she’d been advised to tone it down, which to me would have been unfortunate.

But Brandt simply was doing what superb ballerinas do – varying her expression and nuance with each performance. So instead of being a full-blown seduction from the beginning, here it grew as Act II evolved. And instead of that particularly impressive nuance noted above, she just moved it to a different place. At the conclusion of the Coda, as Odile and Siegfried stand center-stage with the besotted Siegfried on his knees, all Odiles always raise one arm, and with that arm in motion backward, concurrently bend their upper torsos back, ultimately expressing total triumph. Here, Brandt began her victorious display by stroking Siegfried’s cheek (as if acknowledging and returning Siegfried’s love) even as she extended that same arm backward in triumph in the same motion, without undue emphasis and with no change of timing. I nearly jumped out of my seat; it was so absolutely “right” – and the reaction of others around me showed that they’d reacted the same way. Instead of simply seducing Siegfried and the audience, which she succeeded in doing, this simple gesture added a gently-applied knockout punch.

And the audience erupted – although that also could be credited to everything else that she achieved in Act III: including a balance held maybe ten seconds or more, but one that was obviously planned (her Siegfried, after making certain that her balance was secure, moved out of position to clearly direct the focus to her) and at an appropriate time, so there was no appearance of showing off; and fouettes spiked with doubles (with a concluding double or triple flourish) and little drifting, all delivered fully in command. [Again, the exact number isn’t critical, although there’s that “standard” of 32. Here, my unofficial count was 34 (and that’s not a typo).]

The only quality that Brandt may yet lack is that sense of regality; of being a Swan Queen. But that’s not a criticism; as it is, her delivery in both roles contained all the essential qualities she needs and that would be appropriate for her. In toto, hers was another memorable, exceptional performance; one far beyond what one might expect based on her age and experience.

Discussing the four Siegfrieds, as well as other characters, is far simpler than the Odette/ Odiles.

The Prince Siegfrieds

Boylston’s Siegfried in Monday’s performance was Daniel Camargo, in his NYC debut in the role.

After seeing his Pedro the previous week in Like Water for Chocolate, I felt that that likely was not his best role, and that Siegfried probably would be. It was. Camargo is the Prince of one’s imagination; a danseur noble whose regal bearing is instantly recognizable, without requiring any extraneous puffery. His performance reflected that.

But although there were moments of engaging, non-regal expression and his technical ability appeared to be above criticism, to my eye he wore his nobility a bit more obviously than necessary, at times appearing somewhat gruff and dismissive. [For example, as in the segue from Act I to Act II, when he dismisses his friend Benno with the same regal absolute finality as his dismissal of Wilfred when he played Albrecht in Giselle. That’s something that each Siegfried in this production does, but others do it with a greater emphasis on simply wanting to be alone in their loneliness.] To me, it also made his relationship with Benno’s “girl/ dancing partner” look a bit like he was exercising his royal prerogative rather than acting spontaneously, and his Act I soliloquy and related actions (amounting to: “everyone has a girl but me”) less credible.

That being said, he partnered Boylston well (not that she needed much help), and executed his solos powerfully and without apparent flaw. His overall performance quality here was perfectly fine, although I think it will evolve into a more relaxed princely attitude with time.

On Wednesday afternoon, Boylston’s partner (who was originally scheduled to partner Murphy) was a different breed of Siegfried.

Thomas Forster (center) and American Ballet Theatre
in Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Although I’ve seen many of Thomas Forster’s performances over the years, I don’t recall previously seeing any such performances where his role required a regal demeanor and command, as well as essential technical facility. Consequently, his performance here was a revelation. Not only did Forster create a more than adequately princely Siegfried, his portrayal had none of the overbearing demeanor and unapproachable majesty I’ve seen elsewhere. On the contrary, his Siegfried was the least “princely” of all the Siegfrieds I saw during this run, but the most human. This Siegfried was not only a danseur noble; he was a mensch. [“Mensch” is an infrequently used ballet term of art that dates back to the Middle Ages (or earlier) in Central Europe. If you don’t know its meaning, Google it.]

While maintaining a regal bearing, Forster’s Siegfried was the most decent and solicitous of Siegfrieds. At no time did I see his Siegfried as being full of himself or in any other way “above” others; on the contrary, he appeared considerate and concerned about others’ feelings (including his friend Benno’s and in his interaction with the ladies who joined his birthday celebration). This is a subjective analysis, but to me undeniable; his prince was approachable; one you could have a beer with, or hang out with, without feeling inferior.

And this performance attitude came without any impact on his technical execution. Forster’s Siegfried may not have been as flashy as some others’ – I saw no “tricks” or showing off – but his execution was as admirable as any, and his partnering at all times was thoroughly competent (even though, again, his Odette/ Odile may not have needed a partner).

Hurlin’s Siegfried that evening was James Whiteside. Here, unlike as Albrecht last week, there was no attempt to “push his chest out” to look more regal. His appearance was far more natural.

Whiteside’s technical execution was fine – nothing flashy (although his Act III solos were striking in their power and command), but nothing less than accomplished, and his characterization was the same. But more significant than any of these qualities was his partnering. While Hurlin has more than sufficient command, she can’t (yet) do it all herself. Whenever she needed his help, even before she may have realized it, he held her securely centered. His presence helped make Hurlin’s performance as fine as it was.

On Thursday evening, Brandt’s Siegfried was Herman Cornejo. With respect to his Albrecht last week, also opposite Brandt, I wrote that Cornejo is back to dancing at the highest level I’ve seen from him in many years. This observation applies to his Siegfried as well. He was a highly effective partner (both technically and emotionally), and though he threw in a trick or two that was superfluous, they were also undeniably impressive. His performance had a sense of rebirth; of obstacles overcome. Even though I thought his Act I demeanor (with respect to the “everybody has a girl but me” issue) was more petulant than sincere, overall Cornejo’s Siegfried was surprisingly supportive and sincere-looking, as well as powerful beyond his physical stature.

The Rothbarts

Over the four performances, I saw three Rothbarts: Jose Sebastian on Monday and Wednesday evening; Jarod Curley on Wednesday afternoon; and Andrii Ishchuk on Thursday.

Jarod Curley in Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Sebastian has improved a great deal in this role since his role debut a year ago. He displayed far greater command and nuance, more of a serpentine demeanor and more venom to match, and more exact timing, which is critical here. But both Ishchuk and Curley, each to my knowledge in his NYC role debut, took the degree of diabolical evil to a higher level. And Curley added yet another ingredient to his Rothbart characterization: a decidedly self-centered nasty/ smirky quality indicating not only that he was evil, but that he enjoyed both the doom and gloom he’d created and outsmarting this feeble human.

As the Rothbart in the lizard suit (though for some reason it looks less “lizardly” now that I recall from prior performances), Roman Zhurbin has the role honed to perfection, but Duncan Lyle on Wednesday afternoon was expressive and nasty in a slightly different way, matching the differently expressed demeanor of his alter ego, Curley.

The Pas de Trois

I saw three sets of Pas de Trois dancers: Chloe Misseldine, SunMi Park, and Sung Woo Han on Monday and Wednesday evening; Sierra Armstrong, Remy Young, and Patrick Frenette on Wednesday afternoon; and Anabel Katsnelson, Erica Lall, and Tyler Maloney on Thursday. Each group executed very well, with the Misseldine / Park / Han trio appearing the most polished. Although one dancer, Frenette, had a couple of flubbed landings, mistakes happen, and his execution otherwise was impressively upbeat and sparkly in all respects. Lall, in this and most every other role she danced this week, showed markedly improved execution and a higher level of confidence and ebullience than I’d seen from her previously. And it was good to see Katsnelson in another featured role (following her brightly conceived Chencha last week in Like Water for Chocolate).

Other roles

There are too many roles in Swan Lake for me to single out all the ensemble or individual performances, but I must note Jonathan Klein and Jake Roxander’s super “Neapolitan” execution on Monday; Virginia Lensi’s sparkly Italian Princess (she didn’t just watch the Neapolitan dance, she beamed throughout as if thoroughly involved – transitioning to Rothbart’s mesmerized conquest later in that night’s Act III). And a nod to the corps as a whole, particularly in their Act II presentation, and including the dancers (eleven by my count, though I might be off by one either way) who alternated as the four Cygnettes to thunderous applause at each performance.

I regret being unable to see the other three Swan Lake casts, but I’ve seen each of the dancers in the lead roles previously. When Swan Lake returns next year, as I’m reasonably certain it will, any cast will deliver a memorable Swan Lake experience. And if you can see several of them, so much the better.