Review: Cincinnati Ballet, “Swan Lake”, choreographed by Kirk Peterson dates of observations 2/11-14.

In “Next Week, Swan Lake,” Selma Jean Cohen asks, “But what, precisely, are you going to see?” After all, there is neither a Platonic Form of “Swan Lake’ nor a publically accessible ‘meter stick’ type “Swan Lake” archived somewhere in say Paris, St Petersburg, or Moscow.(Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein) And, as testimony to the “evanescence and lubricity” (“Nature”, Emerson) of this ballet, Kirk Peterson, the choreographer of this meditation on “Swan Lake”, told of 50 years worth of research for this event. So, if the ever elusive “Swan Lake” paradoxically embodies the ungraspable, then whether we are either ‘at’ or better still ‘in’ “Swan Lake” just, “Where do we find ourselves?” (“Experience”, Emerson)

Last week. “Swan Lake.” Where I found myself in Cincinnati’s massive Music Hall shortly after the ballet’s load in. It was tech week. (Please forgive(or not)this shameless personal intrusion. But after years of an Odyesseus-like absence, I returned to a ballet company and found myself privileged to be wondering around like an old dog off its chain. If I could have in celebration danced Odette’s entrechats or Beno’s grand jetes in manage I would have.) It was Tuesday late AM, and the company, there for class, filled the capacious Wilks rehearsal space on the second floor of the Hall. The company was twice the size to the one I remembered. There was now a Cincinnati Ballet II and a large number of dancers in the Professional Training Division. As I watched the class the thought struck me that “Here, but here on these stretched Marley bands of time, they barre their way to their lives to come” and also noted that together they formed a magnificent instrument.

In my long familiarity with the works of Kirk Peterson, I found myself expecting, no, knowing to find narrative clarity and a legibility in the choice and order of movement that enables that clarity. Additionally, while he shares with many choreographers a sensitivity to music, his link of sight and sound, however, will a priory defeat any attempt of mine to name it. I am reduced then to saying such things as that, “His work provides exemplars for rather than examples of how dance meets the music.” And further, while this review still dwells in the realm of “imponderable evidence and fine shades of behavior ” (Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein) category, I also note that whether his works are narrative or non-narrative the dancers always “arrive on stage with a history”. (This was said about the works of Fokine, I can’t remember where.) Expressed in Romantic terms: the dancers live their roles by craft and artistry and hence inform the ballet with life. This is importantly true particularly in Act IV.
That principal dancers, Cervilio Migeul Amador, and first soloist, Edward Gonzalez Kay informed their roles as Siegfried with contemplative nobility and agonizing remorse, and they did so with the precision demanded by the carefully researched and re-installed elements (such as the mime and the flash of Odette’s beating foot) seen by audiences of decades past. Amador and Kay danced powerfully and brought their Siegfried to life.

And the Odette/ Odiles, Melissa Gelfin partnered by Amador, and Sirui Liu partnered by Kaye were absolutely fearless in their delivery. Each instantly, seamlessly transformed from the vulnerable Odette to the viperous Odile. And by virtue of their robust performances it dawned on me that Odile is not of this earth. Here, in addition to Odile’s otherworldly 32 fouettes, there lies in her next entrance a ferociousness that unmistakably fills the snap and strike gestures of her arms and the sharp angularity of her moving legs with an malicious intent. These gestures are neither expressions of love nor mere bravura display, but rather a barely concealed and demonic attack on Siegfried.

So, what does Odile as a proxy cygnet cygnet-fy? Perhaps this: that Rothbart better than Lady Macbeth conjured a spirit that does in fact tend “to mortal thoughts” and did (in a fashion) “unsex” Siegfried. And here at the end of Act III’s vertiginous pitch and moment of dizzying time Siegfried finds himself; and, that founding banks on his commitment to Odette. It was a commitment to the redemptive power of love, a commitment that would deliver Odette from her cursed cage of ontological oscillations and thus free her to at least a modicum of self determination. Alas, seduced through Odile’s craven cozenage Siegfried “pawned” by dubious pledge his commitment away; and, to redeem that ‘pawned’ commitment in Act IV he elects to die.

And the gentle, breathless Odette finds herself in Act IV soaked in the tears brought by the comfortless gloom of her ontological trials. She tells her subjects, her friends, of Rothbart’s inscrutable malice and Siegfried’s fateful turn. There too, she confesses her want for death. Altered then to her desperate passion, the already tall brace of soloist swans arrest Odette’s flight to self destruction. And soon in a Valkyrie -like gesture they manifest their protective intent: on point the two great swans tower toward haven and with softly curved arms cover their Queen.

A storm breaks. We hear it in the music. We see it the agitation of the swans. We do not see it, however, in the lighting. Trad Burns, the lighting designer, notes that the transparent artificiality of such stage lightening would blow down the seriousness of the scene. “The swans,” he said, “Are the storm.” He is right. For this viewer, that observation lit up how the Stoic conception of “sympathia” links to Romanticism’s want to (re)animate the world. And what is that? Well, here now think Disney. (I am not using ‘Disney’ pejoratively.) Then mix that with John Ruskin’s dismissive “pathetic fallacy.” Mixed here means marbled rather than dissolved into each other and works to shape a picture of what the Stoic term “sympathia” means. Or if you would rather: picture the interconnections of life found in the movie “Avatar.” In “Swan Lake” the re-animation ideal means that the swans constitute their world rather than represent a world outside it. Hence, the Act IV storm in “Swan Lake” makes outward and visible the swans’ agitation, anger, and their want that justice be brought on Rothbart and Siegfried (call it revenge) as well as being a harbinger of a guilt ridden Siegfried’s entrance. The swans then, and I include Siegfried and the off stage Rothbart, are the storm. So, what does this mean? Where do we find ourselves?

If we accept the not unreasonable question presented in “Swan Lake” as: How does one tell the difference between good and evil when they look alike? Wait, the audience can (dramatic irony, right?). Siegfried’s blindness suggests a debilitating skepticism that denies his trust in “seeing”. In the works of Kirk Peterson, however, particularly in this “Swan Lake”, we find that we can trust what we see. And what we see weaves with the trust we must have in our shared language and other mediums we use to ‘speak’ with. The Act II pas de deux with Odette and Siegfried embodies this idea of trust and acceptance and acknowledgement. (I avoid use of the word “love” because it too often implies ownership, occupation, and other forms of oppression.) In fact, I will go so far as to say that here, but here in this pas the concept of beauty (along with all of its ethical implications) , and oblivious to Beauty’s native lubricity, achieves a Paris Archive-like (this is where to find THE meter stick) foundation. All of this worked because of the excellence manifest in the choreography, the Cincinnati Ballet , the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Carmon Deleone, and the crew of the Music Hall.