American Repertory Ballet
New Brunswick Performing Arts Center
New Brunswick, New Jersey

March 8, 2024
Program: Classic Beauty – Swan Lake (Act II); Romeo and Juliet (Act III)

Jerry Hochman

There are many reasons for a ballet company to present an evening consisting of part of one iconic classical ballet and part of another. One, of course, is that a full-length version of either or both is premature for a variety of reasons relating to the size, experience, and financial resources of a company and its dancers. Another, in a more positive vein, is to display the growing talents of company dancers, and to challenge them to mine their talent deeper than they already have.

This, as well as to present an entertaining evening of dance to its audience, may have been the reasoning behind the American Repertory Ballet program I attended at its opening performance, March 8. Titled “Classic Beauty,” the program consisted of Act II of Swan Lake and Act III of The Sleeping Beauty. It turned out to be not only an entertaining evening, but an enlightening one.

I expected a scene here; a scene there…, but the program turned out to be a reasonably complete construction of the two acts, each a significant component of the ballet from which it was excised. Swan Lake Act II introduces the audience to Odette, the Swan Queen; Act III of The Sleeping Beauty is its concluding segment, which showcases fairytale characters gathered to celebrate the wedding of Aurora and Prince Désiré, culminating in the couple’s Grand Pas de Deux before they marry.

American Repertory Ballet
in “The Sleeping Beauty” Act III
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

For all the lead dancers in the two portions of this program the effort represented a significant leap forward. This is especially true with respect to Odette in Act II of Swan Lake, in which the ballerina must deliver a level of technical capability and characterization far more complex than the other roles presented in this program.

I’ll digress briefly here to explain what I mean.

Act II, considered the first of the ballet’s two “white acts,” is the first time that Prince Siegfried encounters the humanoid swans and their queen. Consequently, in addition to executing the steps correctly, Odette, the Swan Queen, must win the hearts of the audience, and, more importantly at this point, of Siegfried – and he must win her heart as well. [The same obligations are required in the ballet’s next act, but from a very different characterization vantage point.]

So from the outset, Odette must not only do the choreographed steps correctly, she must also tell the prince, through mime, how she came to be the way she is. On top of that, she must move in a way that emphasizes despondency appropriate to her condition, and vulnerability combined with strength of character. This is done in the context of initial fear of the prince, and the evolving glimmer of hope expressed through her eyes and movement quality as she becomes increasingly convinced of his intentions – all while also carrying a regal presence appropriate to her status in the fantasy’s real world (she was a princess when Von Rothbart abducted her) as well as her current status as swan royalty. So there’s a lot for Odette to accomplish here.

Savannah Quiner and Andrea Marini (left, right to left)
and American Repertory Ballet In “Swan Lake” Act II
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Some time ago I mentioned in passing the existence of New Jersey’s seemingly endless supply of ballet-dancing Quiner Sisters. There are six of them (at last count), enough to constitute a chamber dance company all to themselves (as well as to field their own women’s basketball team). Three of them are now members of the company: Michelle, Savannah, and Rachel (I think in decreasing age order). Each of them appeared in one role or another in this program.

Savannah Quiner was assigned the role of Odette in the Friday evening performance I attended. A company member since 2022, Quiner appears to be relatively tall (although stage height is deceptive) with a relatively solid build (as opposed to some ballerinas who may appear distinctively thin and ethereal). I thought it would be a particular challenge for her to appear “swanish” (whatever that may mean), and to present the illusion of lightness when lifted or transported by her partner. Or, for that matter, to handle all the choreography, since she’s still relatively new to the company. [When talking about the Quiner sisters, everything is relative.]

The role of Odette isn’t a cookie-cutter role. Some things, of course – the essential choreography – must be performed as required. But in terms of characterization, there are as many variations over the course of Odette’s performance as there are ballerinas who’ve danced the role, and what works for one in any given sequence may not work for another. Even experienced ballerinas (actually, primarily experienced ballerinas) vary their moment-by-moment actions — the nuances they add to a role each time they dance it – and don’t dance the role exactly the same way from one performance to another. Examples of perfectly appropriate but individually expressed characterizations were reflected in the attendance Friday night of two American Ballet Theatre ballerinas: Gillian Murphy (ARB’s Associate Director, who would be a Guest Artist as Odile for Saturday afternoon’s performance), and Sarah Lane, who a couple of years ago was an ARB rehearsal director in connection with its highly accomplished production of Giselle. And there aren’t only two slightly and idiosyncratically different characterizations; there are a myriad of them, all within the overall requirement of being convincingly in character.

Simply put, Quiner succeeded beyond (my) expectations, carving her own fully appropriate appearance niche, and with far more animation in her expression than I anticipated. She was coached very well (my understanding is that she was coached by Murphy, whose Odette/Odile is one of her finest roles). Don’t get me wrong. Her overall performance wasn’t (yet) at the level of ballerinas with far more experience dancing with major national and international ballet companies. No one would expect that. But It was more than just credible, and the more opportunities she gets will lead to even more impressive outings.

The choreography, staged and choreographed by ARB Rehearsal Director Harriet Clark (after Marius Petipa – and presumably Lev Ivanov as well) omits some of the standard Act II content, a necessity considering the size and breadth of ARB’s roster as well as NBPAC’s stage dimensions. Nevertheless, while I occasionally sensed that some things were missing or condensed, the bulk of what constitutes Act II of Swan Lake was there, and none of the modifications diminished the quality of the production or the performances.

Indeed, I found some of the minor changes intriguing, if they were intended as opposed to being born in the moment. For example, there’s a point in most productions, during their Act II Pas de Deux (which is sometimes called the “Love Pas de Deux”) where Odette, convinced of Siegfried’s love, gently touches his arm or shoulder when he appears to be lost in thought and not focusing on her. Here that remains, but there’s now an earlier point in which Siegfried gently touches Odette in a similar way when he senses she was focused elsewhere. During this momentary touching, to my recollection (or immediately thereafter), as he retreats from her he pulls his hand gently, compassionately, across one of her wings. That I’ve never before seen. Indeed, it jolted my companion and me out of our seats. But it was a perfectly valid physical and emotional expression at that point in time in the piece, as well as an initial bracket of sorts for the subsequent “touching.” There may be productions I haven’t seen that include what I’ve described (or something similar), since the number of Swan Lake productions at times seems as numerous as the number of ballerinas who dance the role. Regardless, and for whatever reason it was included here, it worked perfectly.

Savannah Quiner and Andrea Marini in “Swan Lake” Act II
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Quiner was convincingly in character from the moment she appeared on stage. She was immediately vulnerable, fearful, and commanding. And she handled the essential mime (which some productions, unfortunately, have dispensed with) well. Mime is difficult for even experienced ballerinas to get right – particularly when the mime is a relatively complex backstory, as it is here. From my vantage point, Quiner nailed it.

Particular highlights of her performance included the apparently fearless lifts with her Prince Siegfried (see below), her appropriately mournful but not melodramatic emotional attitude throughout, her gradual acceptance of the reality, and the hope, of Siegfried’s love, and one action sequence that I had difficulty believing she pulled off.

At the end of the Act, while she’s embracing Siegfried, Von Rothbart begins to pull her away with his invisible power. There ensues a tug of war between Von Rothbart’s pull and the counter-pull of Odette’s desire to remain with Siegfried. Nowadays, this struggle lasts briefly, and then Odette is overcome and returns to von Rothbart’s control.

Years ago I saw performances in which that particular struggle was drawn out so the audience could repeatedly see the force of Odette’s effort to stay and the force of Von Rothbart’s pull practically splitting Odette in two as part of her body went one way and another went in the opposite direction, forward and back and forward and back, until Von Rothbart’s power completely overwhelmed her. The audience at that performance knew immediately that exceptional sequence with a spontaneous roar of recognition.

Quiner’s performance in this sequence replicated that. The struggle between the two opposing forces demanding that her body move in two directions at once lasted through several rounds of pulling and counter-pulling, with her body displaying the impact of the contrary forces and her overwhelming efforts before she succumbed. For a ballerina new to this to pull this off (and to display very good swan arms in the process) is quite remarkable.

And then there was her Siegfried. Andrea Marini. Italian born, Marini became a member of the company in 2021 after stints as a trainee and apprentice. I’ve seen him in a number of different roles, and he always acquitted himself well, on his own or partnering.

Here, Siegfried’s primary responsibility, aside from partnering Odette so she stays vertical unless the choreography requires otherwise, is to look at various points bemused, besotted, and bewildered. Marini delivered that, in the process neither appearing too strong nor too weak.

From my point of view he appeared to be the same height as Quiner en pointe, or maybe shorter, but the height difference, if any, didn’t have any negative impact with respect to “standard” partnering. The lifts – specifically when he had to lift Odette, over his head, travel a bit, and then let her down gently – were more concerning.  When the point arrived, he lifted her, and obviously strained to get her aloft. But it was a “good” strain, if there is such a thing – slow and reasonably steady, without shaking or looking awkward. And then he did it again. People in the audience shouted congratulatory whoops so loud that I thought they’d make him drop her, but he didn’t. It was a memorable physical accomplishment to accompany his quality performance effort.

Clara Pevel and Andrea Marini
in “The Sleeping Beauty” Act III
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Every other member of the Swan Lake Act II cast did what they were supposed to do and did it well, from the Cygnets (Jasmine Jasper, Annie Johnson, Avery Snyder, and Lily Krisko) to the Big Swans – here called simply “Four Swans” (Madison Elizabeth Egyud, Michelle Quiner, Erikka Reenstierna-Cates, and Jillian Kramarck), to Anthony Pototski’s Von Rothbart, to the swans themselves – all trainees at ARB’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School. Kudos all around.

ARB’s production of Act III of The Sleeping Beauty fared similarly well.

My first view of Clara Pevel after she joined ARB in 2021 as an apprentice was as Titania in Ethan Stiefel’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opposite Murphy’s Oberon. That was quite an assignment for a newbie, but, as I wrote subsequently, she held her own. Two months later, in a repertory program, I had occasion to describe her performance quality as displaying endearing ephemeral grace. That it still does.

Pevel danced Aurora in the performance I attended. If there’s such a thing as a stereotypical Aurora, Pevel fits the bill. She made it almost believable that she’d emerged from a hundred year nap without a wrinkle and every hair in place after being kissed by some clueless stranger (he couldn’t figure out how to awaken her until prodded by the Lilac Fairy), and promptly thereafter, marry him without so much as a single date.

Clara Pevel
in “The Sleeping Beauty” Act III
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Act III was selected presumably to allow the most ARB dancers to perform, since it’s laden with a variety of largely fairy-tale divertissements that precede the Grand Pas de Deux “main event” – the only time, other than brief promenades, that Aurora dances in that Act. So, relatively speaking, there didn’t appear to be much of a challenge here for Pevel (easy for me to say) beyond executing the requisite balances, pirouettes, pique turns, pointe work and speed, which I’ve seen Pevel dance before (even if only in my mind), as well as acting and carrying herself like a princess-soon-to-be-queen. Pevel executed her role in this somewhat condensed version of Act III [largely staged and choreographed by another ARB Rehearsal Director, Calvin Hilpert (after Marius Petipa, and with additional staging by Murphy)], very well.

As did her Prince Désiré – portrayed, in strange scheduling, once again, by Marini. Although he displayed quality dancing during the Grand Pas de Deux, overall, following his Siegfried role, this must have been a piece of cake. Wedding cake.

Of course, that’s not necessarily true – partnering seemingly lighter than air ballerinas has its own set of challenges, but again, Marini acquitted himself well….as he did with his solos during the Grand Pas de Deux. Another component of his performance, looking like a matinee idol, was a bonus.

But as with Quiner’s Odette, I must highlight one particular example of their successful outing: the always audience-pleasing fishdives. These were handled very cleanly by both dancers, twice (and I think a third time a bit later). They made it look easy.

Erikka Reenstierna-Cates
and Princeton Ballet School Student Izik Bromirski
in “The Sleeping Beauty” Act III
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Of the divertissements, the most important one, from my point of view, was “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.” I have a problem with the way this divertissement is presented in productions by the two major New York companies and others I’ve seen – not with the choreography, but by having a big bad wolf capture cute little Little Red Riding Hood and abscond with her. My argument with it has been that in this day and age, the kidnapping of a child, even if done in good humor, is at a minimum in bad taste. But it never seems to change.

It did here. In this ARB production of Act III there’s no fear of the wolf, and no kidnapping. It’s all done in good fun, and ends with Little Red Riding Hood sharing some of whatever-she’s-carrying in that basket with the cute little wolf, and then exiting happily together. No issues – except it’s not as scary-funny as the originals. That’s a sacrifice worth making.  At this performance the characters were played by Reenstierna-Cates, and Izik Bromirski, a student at the Princeton Ballet School.

Perhaps indicative of the significance of this changed emphasis, this divertissement was choreographed by Stiefel himself.

Nanako Yamamoto and Seth Koffler
in “The Sleeping Beauty” Act III
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Among the other Act III characters, M. Quiner did fine work as the Lilac Fairy (who in this production apparently doesn’t just bless Aurora and Désiré as in other iterations of the ballet that I’ve seen, she the one who marries them). The other divertissements dancers were: Seth Koffler and Nanako Yamamoto as Bluebird and Princess Florine (Koffler started a little weak, but recovered nicely; Yamamoto was solid throughout); the Gems (Egyud’s Emerald, Johnson’s Sapphire, and Leandro Olcese’s Amber), and the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots (Snyder and Roland Jones, respectively). As was the case with the corps in Swan Lake Act II, the Members of the Court here were trainees from the Princeton Ballet School.

Next year, perhaps the company will try to mount one of these ballets in its entirety. Regardless, this program was an illuminating way to showcase the talent on ARB’s roster. [I understand that Swan Lake Act II will be performed again when the Company appears at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre on Thursday, April 4th.]