New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

September 19, 22 afternoon, and 27, 2017
Swan Lake

— by Jerry Hochman

After seeing two performances of New York City Ballet’s full-length version of Swan Lake, I anticipated beginning this combined review by focusing on the production, and highlighting aspects of it that on repeat exposure I see differently, and which make the artistic choices more understandable. But then came Wednesday night’s performance, and that all went out the window – at least as this review’s initial focus.

In preparation for NYCB’s Fall Gala which was to take place the following night, the DHK Theater on Wednesday night was already decorated with dazzling fall colors that drizzled from the Promenade rafters. And the festive air wasn’t limited to the theater’s decor. In every respect – except for the absence of gowns and tuxedos – Wednesday’s Swan Lake performance had the trappings of a NYCB gala. You could sense the anticipation in the air; the house (from every conceivable vantage point) looked full. Everyone, it seemed, knew that Tiler Peck’s Odette/Odile debut was going to be a special occasion. But no one, except maybe Peck herself, could have been prepared for how special it turned out to be.

If there was still any lingering doubt, with this extraordinary performance Peck cemented her status as a world class ballerina.

Peck exudes unusually potent stage magnetism whenever she dances regardless of the role, and in that respect is different from those who may have outstanding technical ability but dance robotically. What distinguishes her more significantly, however, is an aura of unbridled confidence, and the speed, timing, phrasing, and command of nuance that is simply incomparable.

All these qualities were evident in Wednesday’s performance. But there were additional factors at play that made Peck’s performance special even before it began. NYCB audiences have watched her prodigious talent evolve since she first joined the company as an apprentice in 2004 (she became a principal in 2009), and to an extent I suspect that current NYCB audiences have grown along with her. I suspect also that this audience was aware of her recent personal challenges. Further, this debut was an unusually long time coming, and was long-awaited. [There have been an exceptionally large number of long overdue and hugely successful significant debuts in New York this year, including the Odette/Odile debut of Megan Fairchild earlier in this run, which regrettably I was unable to see.] For all these reasons, plus the debut of Peck’s Siegfried, Chase Finlay, the theater was primed for a memorable night, and they got it.

Comparing her performance in this production to those in more “standard” Petipa/Ivanov-based productions is like comparing apples and oranges – well, maybe tangerines and oranges. But even within the limitations and quirkiness of Peter Martins’s production (after Petipa, Ivanov, and George Balanchine’s one-act version), Peck took her Odette/Odile portrayal to an astonishingly accomplished level. It was certainly the finest performance I’ve seen in this production (in large part because she overcame its inherent emotional restrictions), and one of the finest I’ve seen in any production.

I’ll highlight specifics about this performance, and others I saw earlier in the run, in more detail following a discussion of the production itself.

Before this season’s performances, I had not seen Martins’s Swan Lake in four years. The passage of time has not dulled my visceral response to the sets and costumes designed by Danish contemporary artist Per Kirkeby, which, if one can’t get beyond them, can devour and negatively impact this production. But although I still consider the sets and costumes a painful distraction, I’m warming to them, and beginning now to see connections between the sets on one hand and the choreography and Balanchine-derived concept of the production on the other.

In my initial reviews, I described the set (essentially the painted act curtains and backdrops) as consisting of jagged and elongated white zigzags that looked like nerve endings hit by lightning, ensconced, complete with an unusually drab neighborhood “castle,” on some mountaintop aerie on another planet. The costumes to one extent or another adopt the signature zigzag designs, and are particularly unattractive in Act I, where they consist of intentionally “off-norm” color blocks of lime or hunter green, for example, or burnt orange/rust, and some are just plain ridiculous (something must be done about Von Rothbart’s costume, which makes him look like an overgrown chicken with an electrified blood-orange pompadour).

In the performances this season, however, the set impresses me less as a hodgepodge of lines and angles, and more like a flat representation of bare, contorted white poles of varying sizes and shapes that at one time might have been tree branches in some secluded woodland, but that now evidence the ravages of a nuclear winter … or just winter on another planet. Further, in at least one of the painted curtains, one can see a section in between the contorted branches that shows a relatively solid expanse of dark blue color. The shape of it is irregular (caused by the framing tree branches), and the color looks intentionally muted, but it’s a lake.  So this really is supposed to be a swan lake vista – but one seen through a distilled, flattened, one-dimensional perspective.

The leading roles in this production, at least until Act IV, feature this same sense of relatively flat affect and one-dimensionality. [This version is divided into two Acts, each with two scenes, corresponding to the usual Acts I though IV. Here I’ll identify the Acts as they’re usually delineated.] In the Act I birthday celebration, Siegfried comes across as excessively wooden, consistently in all portrayals I’ve seen. In Act II, Odette varies her facial expression little, consistently in all portrayals I’ve seen. And even in Act III, at least until I saw Wednesday’s performance, visual evidence of Odile’s seduction is limited to programmed moments in the choreography (they occur at exactly the same points). The absence of effective characterization, then, is not evidence of a deficiency of acting ability, as I initially thought (although there are degrees of “flatness” and ways to overcome it without emoting, as Wednesday’s performance demonstrated). Rather, the sets and the limited emoting represent a conscious artistic decision to flatten the effect by eliminating extraneous displays, whether in the set or by emotional displays, that might interfere with the purity of the choreography or slow the performance’s NYCB-style feverish pace.

Seen in this light, the whole now seems to have been intelligently conceived, even though it’s not the optimum way to present the characters of Odette and Odile. To me, the significant consideration must be effecting a balance between limiting emoting and overdoing it, not shutting it down to make a stylistic point. And eliminating Odette’s Act II mime is a poor decision regardless of any artistic motivation, with choreographic consequences that muddy the ballet’s ambiance. The first Odette/Siegfried pas de deux in Act II, for example, which usually ends in a languid pose reflecting Odette’s despair and Siegfried’s commitment, here moves immediately into an allegro coda that seems antithetical to the mood that the pas de deux is supposed to establish (and if in the original score is one of Tchaikovsky’s rare mistakes).

But the flat, monochromatic affect that the lead characters tend to display in this production serves other purposes as well. First, it highlights production qualities in Acts I and III that do not involve the leads, and makes them stand out more than they might otherwise. More significantly, it sets up the much greater expressiveness of Act IV.

I’ve admired Kevin McKenzie’s staging of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre, including its heavily criticized deletion of part of what is considered classic Act IV staging, because to me the viewer doesn’t need what amounts to a rehash of Act II. Even though there are supposed to be qualitative differences in the nature of Odile’s despair between Act II and Act IV arising from the loss of hope, that’s often not conveyed any differently from her Act II despair.

But with “excess” emotion removed from Act II, Martin’s Act IV, which includes many of the emotional shadings usually present in a “standard” Act II, becomes far more powerful. Some of this is a consequence of having Odette forever imprisoned in her swan form (as opposed to jumping into the lake, or the pair living happily ever after), but the result – an animated and heart-wrenching display by both leads – becomes considerably more moving, and more shattering, than it might otherwise have been had the portrayals earlier not been one-dimensional. [It doesn’t hurt that Act IV’s staging and choreography are particularly masterful – although its ending might be seen as a Giselle Act II knock-off. If NYCB eventually mounts its own incarnation of Giselle, as I’ve hypothesized in prior reviews, it can use the final segments of Act IV as a template.]

The lead performances I saw on Friday and Saturday afternoon – respectively, Sterling Hyltin and Zachary Catazaro, and Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle, exemplify the portrayals that this production appears to encourage. It must be emphasized that technique isn’t an issue – each of these dancers has a track record of excellence that is indisputable.

Although Hyltin’s performances never disappoint me, there seemed something off about her performance on Friday. Technically, except for more flyaway arms than I recall seeing previously (perhaps exacerbated by the torrid tempo through scenes in Act II that might have looked better a notch slower), her execution appeared up to her usual high standards. But her demeanor in Act I was more than despair – it was if she was in pain throughout. I thought perhaps she’d had a minor injury. And I recall her Odile being much stronger and more seductive when I previously saw her dance the role. Her Act IV opened things emotionally quite a bit, but still not at the level I’d anticipated.

Catazaro’s debut was promising, but tentative. His demeanor, for example, was even more wooden than I’ve seen in other portrayals in his production. I don’t recall seeing him even attempt a smile in Act I, except when he received the golden crossbow birthday gift from his mother. And his partnering, which is usually very good, was a bit off – there were too many occasions when Hyltin was not maintained straight during turns or assisted balances, making the performance look less polished (and perhaps impacting her characterization).

Mearns and Angle have performed these roles many times before, and their execution was flawless in every respect.

Angle opened Act I with somewhat more personality than Catazaro, but not much – consistent with the production’s restrictions. But his execution throughout was spot on in every respect, including top notch partnering and dynamic solos danced to the hilt.

Mearns showed somewhat superior depth of character. She surprised me – she didn’t overdo the pathos in Act II, as I’ve observed that she tends to do in other roles. But – perhaps consistent with Martins’s intentions as suggested above – her expression was far too flat for my taste, even within the confines of this production. She displayed a muted regality to be sure, and a constant facial expression of mournfulness, but not much more. It looked bland, and there was no sense of vulnerability beyond looking forlorn. As Odile, except for delivering the choreography exceptionally well, there was nothing visible to indicate an attempt at seduction beyond the specific points in the choreographic progression that I’ve previously mentioned. And in case anyone cares, by my unofficial count she completed 28 perfectly-executed fouettees, all singles.

Her Act IV, however, was a revelation. The characterization that had been subsumed to the choreography and the production’s style in Acts II and III burst forth: everything that was missing earlier was present in Act IV – together with the supreme technical ability evident throughout. Her portrayal was memorable, and to that point, with Angle’s ardent emotional support, it was the finest Act IV that I’d seen in this production.

Until Wednesday’s performance.

Notwithstanding the audience’s anticipation, and despite knowing how extraordinarily able a ballerina she is, I doubt that anyone was prepared for the clinic that Peck conducted. Every step was spot on. Nuances were abundant. Phrasing was impeccable. And although I’m not a stickler for “how many fouettees did she do?” as long as the ballerina makes an effort and doesn’t convert requisite steps into “whatever she can manage to do,” by my unofficial count Peck did 37 or 38! And the first 22 were doubles, almost on a dime and solid as a rock until the end. She then continued to seduce Siegfried with secure extended balances, and for this production, characterization that was inspired by the choreography, not limited by it. And this was a debut!

In the White Acts, and particularly Act IV, she delivered the requisite regality and vulnerability, with added characterization nuances that I have not seen in other performances in this production. And though not as amplified as I’ve seen in particularly moving portrayals in other productions, her face registered change of mood throughout. Peck’s Odette was not one-dimensional – you didn’t just see the anguish and despair painted on her face, you felt it though various facially expressed panoramas and by making the choreography sing. It was alive.

And although I prefer an Odile with more of the expressed sensuality essential to seduce Siegfried and the audience, Peck injected more character quality and variety than anyone else I’ve seen in this production – including registering and communicating knowing acknowledgement of, and responses to, Rothbart’s whispered instructions, greater amplification of the seduction implicit in the steps, and a triumphant victory celebration as the action concluded that was far more muted in other portrayals in Martins’s version.

In sum, Peck pushed the emotional aspects of her characterizations far beyond what I’ve previously seen in Martins’s version, making it appear much more emotionally complete (and more akin to the best interpretations I’ve seen in more standard incarnations), and somehow did it without ignoring the artistic parameters of the production.

Although I’ve given her Siegfried short shrift so far, Finlay’s debut in the role, within the limits of this production, also displayed more character than others I’ve seen in this production, especially in Act I, which is particularly noteworthy since I’ve often observed him as being unduly wooden in demeanor. And although Peck might have been able to sail though her role(s) without any partnering at all, Finlay’s attentive and accomplished partnering  made any such display of independence unnecessary.

I’ve frequently commented that NYCB audiences do not routinely give standing ovations; they give sitting ovations, with occasional particularly inspired members breaking ranks. Not on Wednesday. This audience, filled from the orchestra to the fifth ring, stood en masse at the cast-wide curtain call, and continued standing and cheering through seven or eight wildly enthusiastic front-of-curtain standing ovations: a give-back that, in quality, almost matched the performance. It was a celebration. If “real” gala performances had personalities, they’d be envious.

It would require a book to reference, much less describe, all the featured performances, but I’ll highlight some.  Martins’s choreography for his Act I pas de trois, although almost too fast-paced, is exhilarating to watch (danced by Unity Phelan, Sarah Villwock, and Harrison Coll on Friday, and by Erica Pereira, Brittany Pollack, and Joseph Gordon on Saturday afternoon and Wednesday) and thoroughly integrated into the constant motion of Act I. And his Act III pas de quatre is a beautifully conceived dance that deserves to be highlighted more than just being one in a series of divertissements. Ashley Hod (especially marvelous), Olivia MacKinnon, Abi Stafford, and Anthony Huxley on Friday, and Ashley Isaacs, Indiana Woodward, Lauren King, and Huxley on Saturday and Wednesday all delivered superb performances.

Rebecca Krohn, who is retiring this season, and Amar Ramasar, who seems fully recovered from an end-of-spring-season injury, delivered a strong Russian Dance on Saturday afternoon (though the dance itself looks less Russian and more like an outtake from La Bayadere), as did Emilie Gerrity and Adrian Danchig-Waring on Friday, and Stafford and Catazaro on Wednesday. Megan Johnson and Miriam Miller sizzled in the Spanish Dance on Wednesday (partnered by Daniel Applebaum and Andrew Scordato), and Baily Jones’s lead in the Neapolitan dance on Friday was both engaging and explosive.

I didn’t appreciate the role of the Jester in my first views of this production. It was unnecessarily retro, and got in the way. But now, with Siegfried given little to do, I see the Jester as the essential spark that keeps the action flowing throughout Act I, in addition to being the vehicle for some of the production’s most exciting choreography. Troy Schumacher danced the role very well on Wednesday (during his final turns in Act I looking like a helicopter ready to ascend), and Spartak Hoxha’s performance on Friday (he also replaced Schumacher for Wednesday’s Act III) is already highly accomplished. But Daniel Ulbricht’s Jester on Saturday is incomparable – to an extent because he’s had so much experience dancing the role, but also because he’s simply amazing in it.

Finally, the Act I dances integrate students, 8 girls and 8 boys, from NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet, making the dances yet more joyous than they already are not only by their simple presence, but also because these young dancers are so good. Several, to my eye, already have the appearance, stage savviness, and presence of company dancers. And three more accomplished male students joined in Act III’s Jester Dance. Apparently, NYCB’s embarrassment of riches continues, from dancing generation to generation.