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

June 20 afternoon, June 23, 2018
Swan Lake

— by Jerry Hochman

Cutting to the chase: even had Christine Shevchenko’s Odette/Odile on Wednesday afternoon not been her role debut, it would have been noteworthy and memorable. That it was her debut made it all the more stunning. I’ll discuss her performance in more detail below.

American Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake, choreographed by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, which occupied the Met stage during the sixth week of the company’s eight week Met season, is one of my favorites. Though it’s been highly criticized by purists for not adhering to the strict Swan Lake score or choreography (though determining exactly what that is is subject to debate), I think it’s one of the best around, and unlike some recent critical converts, I’ve made that observation from the beginning (although this year’s production may have added a bit of unnecessary tinkering, which I’ll address below).

American Ballet Theatre dancers in a prior performance of "Swan Lake" Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

American Ballet Theatre dancers
in a prior performance of “Swan Lake”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

I didn’t like Swan Lake much when I first saw it, because I was overwhelmed by its spectacle, and bored to tears by most of its pace. That initial prejudice was soon overcome, but I’m still sensitive to the sheer weight of the production and the tendency to drag things out interminably with overlong, dull dances (e.g., the “nobles’ dances” in Act I), programmed rigidity (let’s all salute the prince with our goblets raised), and stop-action dead spots and milked bows. In ABT’s current version, the tonnage moves, with no loss of plot or dramatic or choreographic sensibility. That it isn’t “authentic,” regardless of what “authentic” might mean, isn’t nearly as important as that it’s substantially in the mold of the Petipa/Ivanov 1895 version rather than a reimagining, and that it’s spirit is accessible to contemporary audiences.

As I’ve written previously, Swan Lake is also bullet-proof. People who know nothing of ballet know Swan Lake, and it sells tickets regardless of casting (which makes casting based on likely increased ticket sales arising from “star power,” justified or not, as unnecessary as it is damaging to the company’s growth). At the two performances I attended this week, on Wednesday afternoon and Saturday evening, both without a (to date) certifiable international “star” in sight, the house appeared nearly full – or, as on Saturday evening, overflowing.

American Ballet Theatre dancers in a prior performance of "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancers
in a prior performance of “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

When I see Swan Lake, I look for three broad categories of accomplishment: overall technical quality based on existing standards of competence and excellence, the characterization of the dual roles, and most importantly, whether the ballerina, through the steps and characterization, transports me and the rest of the audience into her stage world – to feel not just for her, but with her, in the White Acts, and to be seduced by her in Act III. Both Odette/Odiles I saw accomplished that.

Shevchenko’s Odette/Odile debut on Wednesday afternoon wasn’t what I would consider perfect (although, to keep that comment in context, I can’t recall any Odette/Odile that I would consider “perfect” – whatever “perfect” may be). But that’s about the only adverse comment I can make about a role debut that was a knockout on virtually every level.

Shevchenko is one of ABT’s stronger ballerinas, known for power and command rather than lyricism and vulnerability. Her superb debut as Kitri last year is an example. But now, audiences will know better. As anticipated, her technique in the dual roles was impeccable in all aspects, but her facility with the lyricism required in the White Acts was particularly surprising to me. And although her demeanor in the White Acts here was commanding, her Odette also communicated the vulnerability to make her character sympathetic and to make the performance moving. More often than not one sees a leaning more one way or another, but Shevchenko’s portrayal was balanced. Equally significant is that her Odette directed the flow of the action in the White Acts as few more experienced Odettes are able to do – not by dominating the stage, but by controlling most every nook and cranny of her role and adding gestures (for example, clear and frequent, but at the same time barely detectable movements of her head to communicate “no” to Siegfried in Act II) that enhance rather than modify the choreography.

But particularly eye-opening was Shevchenko’s Black Swan. The role of Odile has been acknowledged to be far more difficult than Odette – not so much for the technical requirements and expectations, but for the characterization. Odile must seduce both Siegfried and the audience, but must not overdo the sensuality or the seduction to the point where it becomes salacious, or so much that it’s obvious to Siegfried, or should be, that it’s fake (e.g., that smile can’t be a pasted-on grin). And it needs to be accomplished not through the choreography alone, but through nuances that go beyond seductive smiles (eye movement, for example). Lastly, it should be consistent throughout, but at varying decibel levels.

Christine Shevchenko in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Christine Shevchenko in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Shevchenko’s Odile accomplished all that. Even aside from her gasp-inducing fouettes (by my highly unofficial count, 36; including repeated doubles peppered with full overhead arms at roughly every fourth, and she finished with a triple. Or maybe it was a quadruple. And she traveled only 5-8 feet – at most). More importantly for characterization, she didn’t fall into the trap of making it too obvious, or too one-dimensional, or, on the other hand, too subtle.

As good as her debut was, there’s room for improvement – mostly in ways that don’t become apparent until one sees, by comparison, that growth has taken place. Of those areas I can quantify, in Act III there were too many moments when she’d freeze up into a blank stare when she began a difficult combination, which continued until she was just about to emerge from it – and since there are so many difficult combinations in the Black Swan pas de deux, that happened a lot, breaking the seductive flow. That’s usually a product of understandable apprehension, and I suspect will be cured as soon as she grows more accustomed to the role. Much less significant – ok, relatively insignificant – is that if you’re going to do the overhead arms during the pas de deux fouettes, and assuming the intention is to mimic swan arms, she’ll need to do more than just raise her arms up and down (as fabulous as that alone looks in context). And in the White Acts she has what looks like a huge wingspan. She might want to bring her upper arms a little closer to her torso, thereby not only shortening the spread, but also enabling the swan arm movement to look more liquid. Obviously, there wasn’t much in Shevchenko’s performance to be critical about.

Like every other ballerina given additional performing opportunities as Odette/Odile (or any other role), Shevchenko is likely to grow even better over time not only with respect to ways I’ve identified, but in ways that are almost imperceptible. The prospect is almost scary.

Seo’s Odette/Odile exemplifies such continuing growth since she debuted in the dual role in 2013, and since I last saw her perform it the following year. But improved as it was, and as undeniably moving as her performance is, there’s room for more evolutionary improvement.

American Ballet Theatre dancer Hee Seo, here with Marcelo Gomes in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancer Hee Seo,
here with Marcelo Gomes in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Her Odette remains the stronger of the two portrayals. This Odette still wears her heart on her sleeve, but her vulnerability is a little less pervasive than I’d previously observed. Instead, and in addition to the inherent vulnerability that remains, she’s now a convincing and captivating Swan Queen, with the regality and the vulnerability – not as much as others, but more than most – that the role requires. And as was the case from her first outing, she remains the only one of ABT’s Odettes I’ve seen who, as Act II concludes, visually illustrates the tension between her desire to remain with Siegfried and her susceptibility to Rothbart’s command. The tug in both directions, while not essential, to me distinguishes a brilliant portrayal from a fine one that “merely” provides the essential lyricism and tragedy of the situation without adding a surplus of angst or pathos. As for her technical capability in the White Acts, she’s improved considerably over her initial performances: now, in addition to her compelling characterization, her technique has the strength to match. It was a top-notch Odette.

Hee Seo, here with Roman Zhurbin, in a prior performance of "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Hee Seo, here with Roman Zhurbin,
in a prior performance of “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

In her initial performances in the role, Seo’s Odile was interestingly understated. The essential sensuality was there, as was the seduction, but it was more subtle, as if hidden behind some personal veil of reserve. I previously described it as serenely seductive. I liked this lower caliber portrayal, but suggested that more visual evidence was necessary. Now, Seo seems to have taken it a little too far in the other direction. There’s significantly more overt sensuality – clear seductive smiles have replaced the almost shy, hesitancy. But the subtlety I appreciated is gone – at least it was in Saturday’s performance – as if someone had mistakenly suggested that she needed to project more. And instead of a varying level of intensity of the seduction, it’s all or nothing, with spans of execution that display no seductive emotion at all – as if she suddenly goes emotionally blank – interspersed with appropriate manifestations. So there’s still a way to go.

Technically, however, her Odile is significantly improved. There was power in her steps on Saturday that was absent in prior portrayals, a greater ability to maintain verticality and balance, and even her fouettes, which travelled significantly in prior outings I’ve seen, now are tighter and more controlled. While the number of fouettes is not critical (as opposed to at least attempting them, which to me, is critical), by my count Seo did 27 (other viewers I know counted 29), included doubles (every fourth, as I recall), and she didn’t begin noticeably traveling downstage until she was more than 2/3 of the way through – and then only about 10 feet. I emphasize this not to show how good or not so good Seo’s execution was, but how much it’s improved.

James Whiteside, who danced Siegfried at both of the programs I saw last week, delivered one of his better performances. Having seen his outings this season as Albrecht in Giselle, and as the Harlequin in Harlequinade, I expected a relatively wooden portrayal – or, alternatively, one that was more “out there” than it should have been. Neither proved to be the case. At both performances, and particularly on Saturday, his Siegfried, to me, was considerably more varied in expressive tone than were his prior efforts. He showed emotion where appropriate; smiled broadly where appropriate, and communicated adequate expressions of ennui or anger as the situation required. But beyond the characterization, Whiteside’s execution overall was commendable (I’ve seen more scintillating turns a la seconde in the Act III pas de deux, but his tours and landings in fifth were virtually flawless, and his ballon, evident in his leaps, was outstanding). And perhaps most importantly, his partnering of both ballerinas was exemplary: consistent preventive partnering and deference to her needs.

James Whiteside and members of American Ballet Theatre  in "Swan Lake"   Photo by Gene Schiavone

James Whiteside and members of American Ballet Theatre
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

At Wednesday’s performance, Aran Bell debuted as Rothbart (the one who looks human). It was a promising debut – he handled the choreography well, hitting his exclamation points where he needed to, seducing the international princesses and the queen as he’s supposed to, and delivering instructions to Odile. But to me he lacked the gravitas that more experienced dancers bring to that role – and decorating his boyish face with a thin beard doesn’t make up for it. A member of the corps (and a relatively new one at that), Bell is obviously being pushed – he debuted as Romeo last week, in a performance that unfortunately I was not able to see. But the attention is not unwarranted – he’s a good-looking, strong, and highly capable young dancer, with some rough edges that he would be wise not to abandon too quickly – they add character. And he’ll fill a perceived void (tall, strong, capable, and hunky) for many years to come.

The qualities that Bell doesn’t quite have yet, Thomas Forster delivered on Saturday. While not yet at the level of the serpentine, magnetic, and irresistible Rothbarts who’ve dominated Act III of this production in prior years – from Vladimir Malakhov to Marcelo Gomes – Forster, a soloist, nevertheless delivered a credible portrayal.

And mention must also be made of the Rothbart in the lizard suit. At both performances, Gray Davis performed the thankless role exceptionally well. This Rothbart didn’t just act like an inhuman beast, he had discernable power and intelligence (notwithstanding the essential screw-up in the end when he focuses on Siegfried and lets Odette escape to her death without noticing until it’s too late), and made you watch what he was doing and how he was doing it. His portrayal was a superhero with a dark side, as much Incredible Hulk as Rothbart, and it was smashingly good.

The pas de trois at both performances was danced by Zhong-Jing Fang, April Giangeruso, and Calvin Royal III. All three performed superbly, with Fang showing refreshing exuberance (although she needs to be careful not to open her mouth when completing a phrase), Giangeruso a sublime delicacy, and Royal elegant power. And as the lead swans at both performances, Katherine Williams and Catherine Hurlin danced brilliant mirror images (and Hurlin added captivating flair to the role of Royal’s dancing companion in Act I).

I mentioned earlier that there appears to have been one apparent and unfortunate change in the production. As part of the streamlining that McKenzie accomplished, Act III segues into Act IV smoothly, with a scene in front of a closed scrim camouflaging the change of sets and allowing for the costume changes. But this year, it seemed that this front-of-scrim scene was not as smoothly done as it has been previously, and included a lengthy dead period when nothing happened (I thought someone might have missed a cue, but it happened both nights). And I wasn’t the only one who noticed. If it was there previously, I didn’t catch it – but I think I would have. In any event, care should be taken to mend the visual gap.

A final observation.

Many years ago, during Act I of an ABT Swan Lake performance at the Met, my eyes were drawn to peasants partaking in the celebratory (and maybe obligatory) commemoration of the prince’s birthday by getting inebriated. One in particular was acting up a storm as a slightly but endearingly tipsy peasant girl, and it was impossible not to notice and admire her acting ability. Unfortunately, one critic at the time (an associate critic of the New York Times) suggested rather stiffly that ABT eliminate that scene as it distracted from the lead characters. I didn’t agree with that – to me, it was much more interesting to watch than whatever else was going on onstage. Eventually, the company presented a modified production entirely, which did not include that scene – which itself was eventually succeeded by the current production.

The corps dancer who was acting up a storm as the inebriated peasant girl was Cheryl Yeager, who made you notice her, and who eventually became a company principal.

Fast forward – well, slow forward – to the performances I saw this past week. Early in Act I, after Prince Siegfried appears but before the Queen enters, one of the peasant girls is visibly enamored of the prince/rock star, and her companion playfully pushes the reluctant but excited girl toward him. She and the prince then briefly connect, and the girl, who might have had a bit too much to drink, falls backward, concurrently embarrassed and overwhelmed at having met her idol. My eyes were drawn to that little moment within a scene because of something I noticed about the way this young dancer was acting. I’ve seen this moment many times before in this production, but this time the girl’s acting was a little more emphatic; looking a little more unexpected and a little more polished at the same time. And it reminded me of that time decades earlier when I watched this little corps dancer steal that scene.

And then, when she briefly turned toward the audience, I recognized the dancer. It was Hannah Marshall, who has been a member of ABT’s corps for several years. And I started to tear (I’m easy; we’ve established that already).

Marshall is Cheryl Yeager’s daughter. The ballerina apple doesn’t fall far from the ballerina tree.