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

Jun 14 (afternoon) and 15, 2017
Swan Lake

Jerry Hochman

When ballet is at its best, it’s magic. Sometimes this is a consequence of the art form itself – ethereal ballerinas and effortless feats of strength, speed, and agility; at other times it’s the result of extraordinary choreography and staging that can effectively create the framework of an alternative reality. Ideally, it’s both. But to me, ballet is at its most magical when the performances are so superbly accomplished and transporting that the alternative reality becomes an indelible memory.

And then there are those performances that are beyond being “merely” magical; that are miracles.

American Ballet Theatre dancers Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancers
Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

I was privileged to see two performances of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake last week that have been added to my trove of indelible memories. Both were magical Odette/Odile debuts: Devon Teuscher’s superbly accomplished New York debut on Wednesday afternoon, which fully lived up to the word-of-mouth following her “practice” debut in Washington, D.C. a few months ago; and Sarah Lane’s unplanned, unexpected, and miraculous first ever ABT performance in the same roles on Thursday.

At the outset of its 2017 Met season, who could have guessed that it would become one of ABT’s most surprising, and most exciting, Met seasons in recent memory?

American Ballet Theatre dancers Devon Teuscher and Alexandre Hammoudi in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancers
Devon Teuscher
and Alexandre Hammoudi
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Teuscher, a product of ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, has been with the company since 2008, and a soloist since 2014. After highlighting her 2009 performance in Paul Taylor’s Airs soon after she joined the company, which I described as being particularly impressive, I’ve watched Teuscher’s skill evolve. In the ensuing years, she has consistently demonstrated a rare degree of technical purity, coupled with characterizations that always project as true in a variety of roles, ranging from the simplicity and warmth she displayed in the Coppelia pas de deux (which I saw years ago, when, coincidentally, she was then partnered by her Prince Siegfried for this Swan Lake performance, Alexandre Hammoudi), to her heartbreakingly wounded Caroline in Antony Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas, to the silently suffering woman pounded into submission in Alexei Ratmansky’s Symphony No. 9 (part of his Shostakovich Trilogy), and to perhaps the role for which she is most well-known to ABT audiences, her exquisitely icy Myrta in Giselle. If she injects anything of her own character into these roles, beyond the undeniable competence and quality of their execution, I haven’t seen it yet. But that’s just an observation, not a criticism.

Odette/Odile would seem to be a natural role progression for her, and her New York debut proved that it was. Teuscher’s Odette was portrayed with the all the clarity of character and execution that the role requires – and considerably more than what might be expected for a debut. This was an appropriately regal Odette, delivering effortless technical ability, including crystal clear mime expression, combined with the requisite pathos and sadness. And although it didn’t knock my socks off with vibrancy and sensuality, Teuscher’s Odile was quite acceptable, neither one-dimensional nor too over the top as some portrayals are, and far more advanced that it had any right to be at this stage in her career. [I’m a tough nut when it comes to Odile – to be truly spectacular, the portrayals must be sufficient to seduce both Siegfried and the audience, without looking in any way vulgar. With the possible exceptions of Diana Vishneva and Sylvie Guillem, to me no ballerina has quite equaled the Odile portrayed by Birgit Keil years ago when she danced the role in New York during an engagement by the Stuttgart Ballet.] It’s not the determining factor in evaluating an Odile as long as the effort is more than perfunctory, but for those who keep count she executed the full complement of 32 fouettes (albeit travelling halfway downstage in the process), including alternating doubles. While not delivered at the level of, say, Gillian Murphy, one can’t expect that. Yet.

American Ballet Theatre dancers Devon Teuscher, Alexandre Hammoudi, and members of the company in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancers
Devon Teuscher, Alexandre Hammoudi,
and members of the company
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

I don’t know how long she’s been preparing for Odette/Odile (the scheduling was announced over six months ago), but still, a New York debut at the Met with some 3000 people examining your every move has to be an unnerving experience at best, and Teuscher made the most of it.

One shouldn’t expect a flawless debut (or a flawless performance at any time for that matter), and to my eye there were a few areas of Teuscher’s performance that could use improvement. But with two exceptions (one possibly not her doing), these are minor.

Over time, she’ll add more expressiveness to her face as Odette; here it was limited to essentially two basic appearances – but that’s one more than I see in many Odette portrayals. And her balances en pointe were consistently held short – but again, what she did was more than adequate, and as she gets more comfortable with the role, she’ll extend them. Also, her Odile was too mild for my taste, but that too will naturally evolve and deepen as her performing opportunities in the role continue.

But two components of her Act III are of greater concern, particularly since they may have been prescribed. First was her interaction – or, more accurately, the lack of it – with her von Rothbart in the initial segment of the Black Swan pas de deux.

To me, Odile’s visibly and repeatedly obtaining “instructions” that Rothbart whispers into her ear as the pas de deux progresses, which results in her incrementally adding White Swan mannerisms in an attempt to convince Siegfried that she’s Odette or a suitable surrogate, is not only thematically proper, but is essential to an optimal integration of the action on stage with the music and the choreography. Omitting that interaction (and I’m aware that it is omitted in some productions and individual performances) loses that narrative sense – and instead forces the viewer to believe that Odile was thoroughly prepared in advance to add these mannerisms incrementally. While that’s certainly feasibly, it’s a far stronger scene with Rothbart clearly pulling Odile’s strings.

American Ballet Theatre dancer Calvin Royal III in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancer
Calvin Royal III in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

At Wednesday afternoon’s performance, and except for a single initial contact with Rothbart when the pas de deux began, as Teuscher danced the opening segment of the pas de deux there were no asides to receive “instructions.” It wasn’t as if they just missed the connection by being physically too far apart from each other on the stage; Rothbart wasn’t there at all – he just sat on the king’s throne, as I recall, watching the scene unfold. And Teuscher seemed to know that that was going to happen (or, if it was a mistake, covered it very well). But whether planned or not, not having that interplay diminishes the staging.

Much more significant, however, is that in the same sequence, as she approached Rothbart, she clearly mimed the “she’s so beautiful” code (hand circling the face) as if to say: “look how beautiful I am.” I’d never seen this done before, and to me it’s wrong. Whether Odile considers herself beautiful isn’t the point, nor is attempting to convince Siegfried that she’s beautiful. Beauty is a nice quality to have in this context, but not because Odile says it’s so. The Black Swan pas de deux requires the display of irresistible seduction (of which sensuality is an essential component), which isn’t the same thing.  Seduction should be accomplished through her facial gestures, the choreography, and the nuances that experience will provide, not through mime. I don’t know what the genesis of this was, but hopefully it will not become a permanent part of her interpretation, because in other respects, this was a sterling New York debut.

As her Siegfried, Hammoudi was too emotionally flat during Act I (the character is supposed to be lonely and bored at that point, but some level of animation is essential). However, he came alive when Odette appeared, and overall his performance thereafter (including diligent and unobtrusive partnering), although unexceptional, was certainly adequate. The Act I pas de trois was neatly executed by Zhong-Jing Fang, April Giangeruso, and Zhiyao Zhang (this was my first exposure to Zhang in a featured classical role, and he was a very impressive Benno). The role of the Queen Mother tends to fade into the woodwork, and although all those I’ve seen in the role at ABT are sufficiently regal and somewhat imperious, I tend to overlook them. Not Kate Lydon’s Queen Mother. She not only did everything right (as Nancy Raffa did splendidly the next day), she was as much a concerned (and maybe somewhat naggy) mother as a queen impatient for an heir. It was different, and it worked marvelously. And except for his absence during the pas de deux (which, as indicated, may have been what he was instructed to do), Calvin Royal III’s debut as von Rothbart (the one not in the lizard suit) was shockingly good. He was a powerful, conniving, somewhat obsequious weasel, as is the case in most interpretations I’ve seen, but Royal wasn’t your standard operating irresistibly slimy carnivore; he added a serpentine quality that was mesmerizing. It was a super debut.

American Ballet Theatre dancers Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancers
Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Lane’s Odette/Odile was a super debut as well, and in many ways was as accomplished as Teuscher’s. But it was also one of the most miraculous, and courageous, performances I can ever recall seeing. That she pulled it off at all, with a week or less to learn the role (including, significantly, ABT choreographic or staging idiosyncrasies), with not being officially cast until two days before the performance, with insufficient (at best) stage rehearsal time, and having just endured the mental and physical challenge of her Giselle debut and an unexpected encore, is miraculous by any standard. One must assay a performance based on neutral principles; it is what it was. But not taking these collateral factors into account would be wrong as well. Lane’s performance speaks as much to her determination, inner strength, and heart, as it does to her natural ability.

If you think that the comments above are a “cover” for a somehow less than terrific performance, you’d be wrong. And Lane signaled what was about to happen as soon as the ballet began.

In this production, staged by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, there is a much needed Prologue which succinctly explains how Odette falls under Rothbart’s spell and becomes transformed into a swan. I like the little scene a lot: it sets the mood and primes the audience immediately to be sympathetic to Odette’s plight no matter who dances the role. But in most of the Prologues I can recall, sympathy – an essential response to engender in an audience – is all there is. Lane, in an instant, created a distinct character. One knew immediately that this Odette, although a princess by birth, was a most youthful and vulnerable Odette. It’s a difference in degree to be sure, but also in impact. It creates empathy rather than sympathy, and the emotional difference is huge.

This excruciatingly exquisite vulnerability became the hallmark of Lane’s characterization of Odette throughout. I can recall no one else portraying the character quite the same way.

But Lane’s Odette wasn’t limited to characterization.

One of the few aspects of this production that I dislike is Odette’s Act II entrance. In most productions, it’s dramatic; in ABT’s, it’s almost an understated walk-on and a somewhat perfunctory leap. Lane’s entrance was a fly-on, with a full-throttle 180 degree buoyant leap. And the excellence continued with balances en pointe that were held long enough to make an impression but not so long that they looked like showing-off.

And it continued. When Lane’s Odette begs Siegfried not to attack her swans, it was done with greater emotion than I’ve seen by others; it wasn’t just a plea, it was a prayer; and when Siegfried agrees to put down his crossbow, Lane’s expression changed not just to relief, but to measurable gratefulness.

And it got yet better after that. Simply put, the initial segment of Lane’s Act II pas de deux with Siegfried (Daniil Simkin) ranks with the finest I’ve seen in over 40 years. Talk about miracles.

As with her Giselle, the orchestra’s tempo was painfully slow though Act II, particularly as the pas de deux began. But, again as with her Giselle, this didn’t translate into a too slowly evolving performance – on the contrary, it was like watching poetry in motion. Every millimeter of movement flowed like honey. Lane’s dramatically crystalline line and extensions made her appear larger than life, and her facial expression, not in any way fixed, was the essence of pain and vulnerability. And throughout this lengthy opening revelation, one heard from the audience that most magical of sounds that one hears, if ever, only at the most breathtaking and experienced Odette portrayals: total silence. It was as if the audience was, collectively, afraid to exhale lest Lane’s spell (hers, not Rothbart’s) be broken. You could hear a pin drop.

That degree of uniqueness and perfection, particularly under the circumstances here, could not have been sustained. The balance of Act I was less than perfection, but still moving and memorable. The criticisms are nitpicky stuff – for example, during the entrechat quatre – passe sequence immediately prior to Act II’s conclusion, a particularly “showy” moment, her passes might have been raised higher above the back of her knee, as Teuscher admirably did (and as Vishneva has done spectacularly). But the overall impact remained vivid.

Lane’s Act IV was a continuation of her Act II, except the vulnerability and the hurt, appropriately, were conveyed yet more strongly. To the extent it may not have been quite as spectacular as Act II, it’s because the choreography for Act IV is much more limited in this version – which is not a criticism. On the contrary, I like what McKenzie has done with Act IV. The audience doesn’t need a rehashing of Act II; it’s time to move the ballet forward inexorably and somewhat expeditiously, which this version does.

Lane’s Black Swan is not yet at the same level as her White Swan. That’s not unusual in any Odette/Odile portrayal, much less one done, effectively, on the spur of the moment. I’ve commented previously that swans aren’t hatched fully grown; except in rare cases (like Lane’s Act II pas de deux) there needs to be an evolution over time, and a performance developed in a week or less can’t compare with one presented after  substantial preparation and repeat opportunities to grow in the role.

That being said, everything needed for Lane’s Odile to reach the level of her Odette was there (including her well-executed responses to whispered instructions received from Rothbart), but to me, although far from being monochromatic, the acting could be more strongly focused, and the portrayal would benefit from further development of the essential sensuality and seduction. [See, “I’m a tough nut…,” above.] In the future, Lane might want to consider in some way importing the temptress/tease characterization she displayed so effectively in Ratmansky’s Chamber Symphony (also a component of his Shostakovich Trilogy). And for those for whom it’s an issue, Lane completed 27 by my count (29 by some others with whom I’ve spoken) of the Act III fouettes, every third a double until 16, all tightly controlled and perfectly executed. I suspect she stopped slightly short of 32 because, as I’ve indicated previously, I see Lane as a perfectionist, and the last few might not have been as perfect as the previous 27. In the overall scheme of things, 27 or 29 is in the high range for ballerinas in this company.

American Ballet Theatre dancer Alban Lendorf in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

American Ballet Theatre dancer
Alban Lendorf in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

In his debut in the role, Alban Lendorf’s Rothbart was compelling. His was a more “standard” interpretation (unlike the way I’ve described Royal’s debut the previous day) – an irresistibly slimy carnivore – but no less magnetic. The pas de trois, danced by Cassandra Trenary, Skylar Brandt, and Joseph Gorak, was nicely done by all.

Simkin’s Siegfried was a good balance for Lane’s Odette/Odile. They both present as unusually youthful, so there’s no sense of age or experience incompatibility. Aside from that, although his acting could be improved, Simkin’s partnering was more than adequate, and his individual technique in his solos was, as usual, through the performing roof.

But Simkin’s value in this performance was beyond technique or characterization. One of his essential functions here, as one with experience in the role, was to help Lane get through it. That he did. And although she deserves the credit for going considerably beyond just getting through it, he should be recognized as well for his attention to her throughout the performance.

And Simkin displayed a gallant, human side that I don’t recall seeing previously. During the tumultuous curtain calls after the ballet’s conclusion, he stood center stage and applauded Lane – at least two separate times. More than anyone, I think, he recognized the enormity of Lane’s accomplishment. Most performances at this level, or probably at any level for that matter, are combinations of talent, preparation, and adrenaline. Instead of sufficient preparation, Lane had a wing (a swan wing) and a prayer – together with Simkin and an above average complement of guts. And she had the audience on her side from the outset.

American Ballet Theatre dancers Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin during curtain calls following the June 15, 2017 performance of "Swan Lake" Photo by Jerry Hochman

American Ballet Theatre dancers
Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin
during curtain calls following
the June 15, 2017 performance
of “Swan Lake”
Photo by Jerry Hochman

Which brings me to some final comments. Thursday night’s audience was not your usual audience. For one, it was virtually a full house (except for the Met’s Family Circle, which ABT keeps closed for most performances in a transparent effort to push the sale of more expensive tickets). That includes full (to my view) side boxes, and orchestra standing room more than one row deep. Unless the information on the Met website was inaccurate, plenty of seats were available on Monday. It’s possible that tickets were comped, and it’s also possible that people made last minute decisions just to see a performance of Swan Lake, regardless of cast. But from my own observation, a sizeable number of tickets were sold after the cast change was formally announced on Tuesday to people who just came to see Lane in her suddenly scheduled and long overdue Odette/Odile ABT debut. [She danced the dual role, to my understanding, once before, in a different production, with Angel Corella’s company in Spain…about five years ago.] The house was alive, but not in the usual way. To a large extent, at least based on those within my viewing vicinity, they came to see a friend.

When I wrote my first ballet review thirteen years ago (almost to the day), I sensed the same emotional quality in the audience for that performance of Juliet by then principal ballerina Amanda McKerrow. I wrote at the time that “[McKerrow is] more than just a top-notch ballerina, she’s also the audience’s friend (you can’t help but like Amanda), [so] the performance was also joyous. At the end, you just want to lift her up to show her how happy she’s made you feel and how proud you are to know her, even vicariously – which is exactly what Ethan Stiefel, her gallant and, in a way, respectful Romeo – did during the curtain calls. He seemed as genuinely happy for her as I and the rest of the audience was.” Fast forward 13 years, substitute Simkin’s applause for Stiefel’s lift, and that description of McKerrow’s performance applies equally to Lane’s.

Among the attendees at Thursday’s performance was Amanda McKerrow, who unbeknownst to me is one of Lane’s very good friends, and I’m told someone who Lane admired greatly and sought to emulate when she first joined the company.  Perhaps coincidentally – perhaps not – they also share a common performing sensibility, and, as it turns out, engender a remarkably similar audience response. Sometimes you just know.

The evening was ballet theater, as well as a little chunk of life, at its magical, miraculous best.