American Ballet Theatre
Metropolitan Opera House
New York, New York
May 29 evening, June 2 afternoon and evening, June 6 afternoon, 2022
For the third week (+3 days) of its 2022 Met Season, American Ballet Theatre presented twelve performances of Swan Lake. Included among them were two Odette / Odile role debuts – by Skylar Brandt and Catherine Hurlin. I was able to see both of them, as well as a performance by one ballerina, Hee Seo, whom I’d previously seen in the role(s) several times.
Cutting to the chase, the two role debuts, though very different from each other, were quite extraordinary. Each was memorable in its own way, and each was – almost – beyond criticism. Seo’s outing was somewhat of a letdown in comparison to these, as well as based on her prior Odette / Odile performances.
I’ll elaborate below. First, however, I’ll briefly discuss the production.
While I’ve been critical of ABT’s current production of Don Quixote in the past, as summarized in my review of this year’s string of Met performances, the same is not the case with its Swan Lake.
I recall enjoying Mikhail Baryshnikov’s iteration of Swan Lake, but I viewed that ABT production maybe twice, and my memory of it has faded beyond recollecting that I found it unusual and interesting, and liked it quite a bit. [I also recollect being one of the few who felt that way about it. Contrarian even then.]
I have a much greater recollection of other ABT Swan Lake productions I’ve seen, and as I’ve mentioned many times previously, the current version choreographed by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, after Petipa and Ivanov, is by far the finest. Within reason, McKenzie has updated the production for contemporary audiences by keeping what is essential (which is most of it) and eliminating or restructuring what is not. As a result, not only is this Swan Lake an entertaining and moving experience no matter how often one sees it and regardless of its cast, it’s relatively painless. That is, in every respect it moves expeditiously: the pace is quicker than other versions, with fewer “dead spots” and unnecessarily repetitious choreography. With these adjustments, which enable eliminating two of the usual three intermissions, the tonnage moves – and that’s no small accomplishment. The only downside: unusually long restroom lines during that one intermission.
As with ABT’s series of Don Quixote performances, audiences seeing only one Swan Lake performance this season will think it had to be the best ever. But there are differences among them that are valuable to know, albeit difficult to describe without appearing to be overly subjective. Be that as it may, I’ll focus the rest of this review on the qualities of each of the individual Odette / Odile performances I saw. And I apologize to the reader in advance for jumping back and forth between the two debut performances.
Comparing Brandt and Hurlin’s O/O debuts is akin to comparing apples with apples, though different varieties: Brandt’s a Royal Gala (maybe with a touch of a Jazz); Hurlin’s a Golden Delicious. As with different apple varieties, there are clear visual differences between their portrayals. But in the overall scheme of things these differences, while obvious and significant, don’t matter. Each presented the finest of Odette / Odile debut performances, distinguishable from other such role debuts for one overriding reason: their respective success portraying Odile.
Brandt’s overall performance exceeded the already high expectations that came with it based on her previous outings, her social media posts, and the undeniable fact that her audiences adore her. And I’m not just talking steps. Brandt’s Odette varied her facial expressions throughout, without pushing the emoting envelope unreasonably. Some might say that the choreography speaks for itself and that any emoting is at best unnecessary, but to me limited emoting (not overdoing it) adds an essential quality to an Odette portrayal. Acts II and IV work without it; but work better with it. Not only could I sense the emotions beneath the surface in Brandt’s Odette, I could see it register in her face. And her extraordinary quality of musicality was evident throughout.
Everything I’ve written about Brandt’s Odette applies to Hurlin’s as well. Hurlin’s Odette made the choreography sing even more than it might have otherwise because of the facial nuances she added that made the communication between her and her Prince Siegfried even more complete, and more natural-looking. Her Odette might have been ever so slightly less controlled than Brandt’s, but Hurlin’s portrayal (in Act IV as well as Act II) was so compelling that to the extent that may have been the case it didn’t matter in the least.
Most ABT ballerinas, including each who was scheduled to dance O/O this season, perform Odette very well also: the differences among them being, at most, a matter of degree and personal preference.
The role of Odile is a different matter.
As some of the greatest of Odette / Odiles, like Natalia Makarova, have publicly recognized, for most ballerinas Odile is a much more difficult character to get right than Odette. There’s the quality of seduction to be sure (of the audience as well as Siegfried), but it must be done … seductively, without relying on the choreography alone, and without hitting Siegfried over the head with an anvil. To a large extent (and far more than anyone could reasonably have expected in a role debut), both Brandt and Hurlin accomplished that.
I can’t overemphasize the significance of this. As my prior Swan Lake reviews over the years can attest, when it comes to Odile I’m a tough sell. It requires far more than getting the steps right or executing the coda well. Like any good seduction, it’s far more complicated than that.
On its most basic level, Brandt and Hurlin knew what their Odiles were supposed to do, knew how to go about doing it – and, most importantly, knew how to show it. That alone put each performance beyond those of many other ballerinas, even those who’ve been dancing the role for eons.
But their success as Odile goes beyond that.
Together with her generally impeccable execution, Brandt created nuances in her Odile portrayal that I’d not seen before. Hurlin did too.
With respect to Brandt’s Odile, the most significant of these was one little action that was unique, and seismic. At one point as Brandt’s Odile is seducing Siegfried, she starts to slowly pull away from him. [I’m not certain of the exact moment at which it occurred – I think it was early in their pas de deux where she’s taunting Siegfried while maintaining her distance (i.e., “you can look but don’t touch … yet”), but it could have been at a different point.] As this was happening Brandt allowed her hand to slide along Siegfried’s outstretched arm – effectively pulling him in as she pulling away. This went far beyond the choreographic tease that is a component of the choreography for all Odiles. This little maneuver – it lasted maybe a second – had to have been electric to any Siegfried with a pulse – or any would-be Siegfried in the audience. Without question this was the single most seductive physical act (as opposed to facial expression(s) alone) I’ve ever seen by any Odile, one I don’t recall ever seeing before, and one that wasn’t duplicated in the two performances I saw since Brandt’s (I watched for it). After that, poor Siegfried never had a chance, and neither did the audience.
Everything else that Brandt did as Odile was spot on as well, particularly her clearly receiving and acting on instructions given her during the course of the pas de deux by von Rothbart – the human reptile, not the one in the lizard suit (hereafter just Rothbart). Not only did she move herself into position to get the instructions (some seem to do it by long-distance), Brandt also communicated that she understood exactly what Rothbart was instructing her to do by her immediately responsive facial expression (a little light bulb goes off and registers in her face, like “got it, master”) – something that even Odiles who include the exchanges with Rothbart fail to do.
Hurlin’s Odile was on an equal footing with Brandt’s, but different.
Hurlin’s exchanges with Rothbart were a bit more perfunctory than they were with Brandt’s, as is the case with most ABT ballerinas, and there wasn’t a single moment clearly more extraordinary than others – except, unlike most other Odiles, Hurlin came across as a natural temptress. She didn’t have to work at it or force it; the ability to seduce was part of her Odile’s genetic code. And as Hurlin delivered it, it was a seductive smile with an edge – there was immense power and control behind it.
But there was one nuance, far different from Brandt’s, that Hurlin added to her Odile portrayal that I’d never seen before and that lent a quality of mystery to her characterization. Occasionally in Act III Hurlin snapped her head back toward Rothbart (or at least away from Siegfried), even when at that particular moment her actions were (or were supposed to have been) focused only on seducing Siegfried. It was as some imaginary string had been pulled, or as if she’d heard commands or for a split second had turned off or reset her motor functions. It happened two or three times – enough to be noticeable, but not so often as to be seen as some uncontrollable emotional tick. In these moments, she was as much machine (not as in Coppelia; as in possessed), and the sudden gesture impacted the rest of her Odile portrayal, making the programmed aspect of what was happening all the more apparent. [It also fits with my conception when I first saw Swan Lake of Odile being Rothbart’s “creation” rather than his “daughter.”]
I’ve written previously that the finest Odile I can recall seeing was by Birgit Keil when the Stuttgart visited the Met in the 1970s. Now, with Brandt’s and Hurlin’s portrayals, there’s competition.
These performances make the absence of Sarah Lane from this year’s lineup even more tragic: her Odette had a quality, even with the limited advance preparation / rehearsal time she was given, of vulnerability and soul that no one I’ve seen before or since can match; hers was the swan princess next door. If nothing else (and there’s a lot “else”), it would have been interesting to see if she’d have been able to carry those qualities into her Odile as well as her Odette, and how this might have compared to Brandt’s and Hurlin’s. [Those ballerinas who rely more on strength and regality are swans that present with a different sensibility.]
As wondrous as Brandt’s and Hurlin’s performances were, there are a few things that, to me, would benefit from revision. As I wrote at the outset, however, these observations are minor, and in no way detract from the excellence of their performances.
In Act 2, Brandt’s swan arms were gorgeous. But I recognized immediately that there was something deficient about them, something I previously referenced in my review of Christine Shevchenko’s wonderful debut a few years ago. Odette’s swan arms need to ungulate, but not just from her elbow and wrist; somehow her upper arms need to undulate (or look like they’re undulating) as well. Visually, to my recollection from other performances, this places Odile’s upper arms somewhat closer to her body than Brandt (and Hurlin) displayed – not rigidly so; just so they don’t look like “stretched out” wings preparing for take-off. [The swan arms I’m referring to are those displayed when she’s succumbing to or under Rothbart’s control, not throughout the course of the action, when this quality is less essential.] I know it’s doable and has been done before, because I’ve seen it. And if this is accomplished, the next step would be to exit the stage under Rothbart’s spell while facing the audience rather than turned away – a knockout ending to Act II that I can recall seeing only once before when the Royal Ballet performed Swan Lake in New York. I think that Odette was performed by Merle Park, but I’m not certain – I am certain, however, in my recollection that that audience collectively gasped in amazed disbelief.
And as long as I’m on the Act II exit, the best Odettes communicate the tug-of-war between her emotional connection to Siegfried and her eventual yield to Rothbart’s spell not just on the first pull-away, which Brandt and Hurlin and most ABT ballerinas do, but by continuing forward and back once or twice more – reflecting the effort she makes to overcome Rothbart’s pull – until she eventually succumbs, fixes her upright, robot-like position, and fully retreats. I’ve seen this a few times before (possibly by Diana Vishneva, as well as others), and this additional effort – which if executed optimally brings the house down – would elevate Brandt’s and Hurlin’s already top-flight performances exponentially.
Also in Act II, my personal preference is to have Odette’s Act 2 entrance be a “fly-in” rather than a “walk-on.” This production apparently prefers (or directs) the latter, but it doesn’t look right. Odette just walks out from the marsh for a stroll? Her entrance is better if it’s more visually dramatic than that. Lane did that in her role debut, and I’ve seen Odettes leap to the stage from the wings in other productions.
Finally, in Act III, Brandt’s seduction of the audience needs to be toned down. When I’ve written in the past that Odile needs to seduce the audience as well as Siegfried, I meant “in addition to,” not “separately from.” Brandt’s Odile was alive and seductive to Siegfried: but when she turned to the audience, what had been seductive became overkill – it was a valiant attempt, but it looked too much like mugging. All that’s necessary is to bring Siegfried to his knees and draw the audience in so that they’re seduced too.
Again, however, these critical observations are relatively insignificant in the context of the overall quality of Brandt’s and Hulin’s portrayals.
With respect to technical highlights, and for those who consider them indicia of a great Odile (or overall) performance, both Brandt and Hurlin executed comparable fouettes: 32, with opening and closing doubles and the rest singles, and each traveled minimally (though on a quarter rather than a dime). In other words; in this respect too, their execution was exceptionally good.
In her Odile, Seo did the same thing – except her tightly controlled fouettes (these were on a dime) couldn’t keep pace with the orchestra’s tempo, and she was already behind when she fell off point at about 25 and then abandoned them. I don’t consider this critical at all – I know from prior outings that she can do them; she may just have been tired. All other things being equal, it wouldn’t have mattered. But all other things weren’t equal.
I’ve seen Seo’s Odette / Odile previously. Indeed, I raved about the one I saw prior to this (in 2014), and which I recognized was a considerable improvement over her debut.
Here, the problem wasn’t so much execution (but for the overlookable fouettes, her execution appeared impeccable), but the absence of any expressed, or even implied, emotion behind it. To my eye, Seo’s Odette displayed a visage that, while appropriately tragic (consistent with the choreography and well conveyed through mime), was flat.
More seriously, in Act III a flat demeanor undermines the act’s premise, and Odile’s raison d’etre. Seo did inject some seductive-looking smiles, but they were few and far between. Most of the time I saw no expression on her face at all.
I’m aware that others saw Seo’s performance differently (and the audience was vocally appreciative); perhaps the problem I had was less in Seo’s execution than my expectation. But, especially compared to Brandt’s and Hurlin’s portrayals, Seo’s lacked the spark to take it to another level.
Seo’s Siegfried, Aran Bell, executed exceptionally well, but I’ve seen him more visibly engaged on other occasions. [From information gleaned afterward, I understand that he may have been dancing with a slight knee injury, which would easily explain that.]
On the other hand, Brandt’s Siegfried, Herman Cornejo, seemed energized – particularly in Acts I, II and IV. Indeed, in Act II, I saw little evidence of the signs of aging that I’d seen in his Basilio. His Act III looked more forced and less polished than Act II, but not at all deficient. Combined with his attentive partnering, his was a highly commendable performance.
What Cornejo also does, however, is to show the audience how hard he’s working. He strains to soar as high as he needs to, and milks the tricks to make them appear to be more of an accomplishment than they’d look otherwise. By contrast, Hurlin’s Siegfried, Joo Wan Ahn, comes across smooth as silk. He executed superbly, and his partnering here was without flaw (at one point I thought he’d lifted Hurlin too far over his head, but if that was the case, he corrected it immediately and satisfactorily). He was always there when he needed to be.
What’s different about Ahn is his lower-decibel execution and characterization. His “tricks” didn’t look like “tricks” as much as fine execution, and he never looks like he’s trying to upstage his ballerina. It may look less exciting, but watching him is refreshing.
The supporting cast for Brandt’s and Hurlin’s performances (virtually identical) appeared enceptionally vibrant and executed brilliantly. Soup to nuts, it was as if everyone had pushed themselves for these debuts.
Gabe Stone Shayer’s Rothbart, like his Espada a few weeks earlier, was another pleasant surprise. His characterization was sufficiently serpentine in Brandt’s performance, but it was yet better for Hurlin’s – a couple of minor things that could have been improved on, were. Most notably, he looked far more comfortable addressing other characters (the Princesses; the Queen) in his second outing, and he came across as far more venomous. I particularly noticed his being slightly behind toward the end of his introductory solo (not because he was too slow – because he put more stuff into it), but he made up for it with a cat-like leap from the stage floor onto the upper level of the royal podium and made it to the throne effortlessly, all in one musical beat. Brilliantly done. At Saturday’s performance, Jose Sebastian reprised his role, and performed commendably, though a bit more flair would be welcome.
As the Rothbart in the lizard suit, Roman Zhurbin delivered a more than usually animated performance, matching every other castmember who was unusually “on” for Brandt’s debut. His outing for Hurlin’s debut was comparable.
The Act I Pas de Trois at Hurlin’s performance, danced by Patrick Frenette (here the male role in the pas de trois is assigned by the character Benno, Siegfried’s friend), Zimmi Coker, and Breanne Granlund (the “jumping” girl), was marvelous all around. Coker, as I’ve recognized before, has a distinctive quality about her (beyond her red hair) that’s been evident since her performances with ABT Studio Company, if not earlier. In whatever she dances, she glows. Granlund’s first solo variation seemed to be taken at a slower tempo than the rest of the pas de trois, but her execution was crystalline. And Frenette was a revelation. I don’t recall previously seeing him in a featured role, and his execution here was flawless. The same gang of three danced the Pas de Trois at Hurlin’s performance.
The Pas de Trois cast for Seo’s performance were Chloe Misseldine, SunMi Park (the “jumping” girl), and Sung Woo Han. Unlike Granlund’s first variation, the tempo for Park’s first variation didn’t slow, and she completed it, and everything else, admirably. Misseldine is extraordinarily precise in everything I’ve seen her dance, and her performance here was no exception. But seeing her this time from a different vantage point emphasized, at least to my eye, how pale she looks. I don’t know if there’s anything that can, or should, be done about that, but it was noticeable. Han’s execution was commendable in every respect.
As much as I’d like to recognize each other castmember for each performance, that’s not practicable. Suffice it to say that aside from a minor hiccup here and there, they all complemented and enhanced the featured casts.
But the performances of the corps at each performance, and the ABT orchestra, merit special emphasis. I’ve rarely seen an ABT corps as uniformly consistent, and as uniformly excellent, as I did for these performances. They’re largely a new group from those I saw the last time ABT’s Swan Lake was performed, and they did the company credit.
I’ve criticized the ABT Orchestra regularly in the past, primarily for its ponderously slow tempo at certain points in whatever score they were playing. However, for the Swan Lake performances I saw this season, that was decidedly not the case. Listening to them was an exciting concert experience on its own. Indeed, if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought the old ABT orchestra had been replaced for this engagement by the New York City Ballet orchestra: they sounded that energized, and that good.
The only significant disappointment arising from the Swan Lake performances I saw was something that didn’t happen. Seo and Brandt are Principals. Hurlin is a Soloist. Following Hurlin’s terrific Odette / Odile, she should have been promoted to Principal on stage. Unfortunately, unlike some other companies, ABT doesn’t do that. Yet.
Following four repertory performances, on to the final production of ABT’s Met 2022 season: Romeo and Juliet.