Koch Theater, New York, NY: September 20 and 21(M), 2013

Jerry Hochman

New York City Ballet's Teresa Reichlen in "Swan Lake" Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet’s Teresa Reichlen in “Swan Lake”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

Although criticism of Peter Martins’s production of “Swan Lake,” which opened New York City Ballet’s Fall, 2013 Season at the David H. Koch Theater with a series of six performances, includes objections to his decision to eliminate most mime, to limit the opportunity for character development for the principals, and to change certain iconic choreography, the most universal condemnation focuses on the scenery and costumes by Per Kirkeby and the negative impact that these sets and costumes impose on the production as a whole.

In Mr. Martins’s version, the story is transported from its usual idyllic setting to a cold and dreary mountaintop swan aerie (there’s no ‘lake’ in sight), as if Scottie had beamed up the production to a planet where no dancer has gone before. The scenery (and act curtain) feature jagged and elongated white zigzags that look like nerve endings that had been struck by lightning and spread vertically across various irregularly-shaped blocks of muted colors. While these images may be striking works of abstract art (Mr. Kirkeby is a contemporary artist renowned in Denmark, where Mr. Martins’s ballet premiered in 1996), the dominating ‘electric-charge’ images, which are replicated on many of the sets and costumes, carry with them a perception of angularity that the choreography mirrors. More importantly, the sets and costumes clash with the conception of “Swan Lake” on its most basic levels – it visually conflicts with the score (increasing the orchestral pace only makes the performance move faster; it doesn’t change the character of the Tchaikovsky music), and wrests the story from its central European roots and plops it in the middle of nowhere.

Repeated viewings of Mr. Martins’s production this past week have not changed my overall impression. But I now see positive aspects of Mr. Martins’s choreography (‘after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and George Balanchine’), and one particular benefit to the Kirkeby style that I had previously overlooked.

The opening scene, Prince Siegfried’s birthday party, is often staged as a relatively stodgy celebration by villagers and aristocrats, with dances that frequently are, at best, uninteresting. In Mr. Martins’s version of Act I (this production merges the usual Acts I and II into one act, and Acts III and IV into a second act; for ease of reference, I’ll use the usual ‘Act’ delineations here), following the breakneck pace of the orchestral overture, the dancing explodes from the first second until the hunt begins at Act I’s conclusion. Led by the omnipresent and peripatetic Jester character, the stage is in non-stop motion. Even the pas de trois is thoroughly integrated into the action rather than being a choreographic parenthetical aside. The scene is exhilarating to watch, and may not have been possible in this form had the set been the usual palatial setting, with its concurrent behavioral expectations. Indeed, the exuberance mirrors the electrically charged sets and costumes, and the costume color cacophony somehow adds to the excitement. By removing the action from its usual venue, Mr. Kirkby’s sets and costumes (credit for the original design of the costumes is shared with Kristen Lund Nielsen) frees the scene from its usual stylistic underpinning and lets it breathe, NYCB style.

But when the hunt begins, and the swans emerge at Act II’s beginning, the stark sterility of Mr. Kirkeby’s artwork has the opposite effect, and hopelessly clashes with the music, the steps and the story. The only way to watch the balance of the production is to attempt to ignore the sets or at best to suspend disbelief. Either way, the production suffers.

Aside from the increased appeal of Act I, the other major positive choreographic impact of Mr. Martins’s version is the Act III divertissement. While the placement of these divertissement in the context of the act is not extraordinary, the dances themselves are generally a significant improvement over the ‘standard’ lackluster character dances that mark time between Odile’s entry and the Siegfried/Odile black swan pas de deux. Here, Mr. Martins’s choreography shines. He includes in the divertissement a pas de quatre for three ballerinas and a danseur that doesn’t really ‘fit’ with the rest of the dances, but that provides an opportunity for greater choreographic variety and expertly executed performances. He has converted the ‘Russian Dance’ into a sensuous pas de deux that echoes ‘Ballets Russes’ sensitivity (and integrates it with the aroma of Balanchine’s ‘Coffee’). Even the ‘straight’ nationality dances (Hungarian, Spanish, Neapolitan) have been imbued with greater visual variety and flair, and are a far cry from the dutiful representations that usually clog the stage until the main Act III choreographic event begins.

However, neither the ebullient Act I nor the revitalized Act III divertissement rescue this production. The Act II and IV staging, largely as reimagined by Balanchine in his one act “Swan Lake” (which NYCB included in its repertory last winter), cuts too much. Nearly all the mime has been dumped. The Tchaikovsky score has been chopped. And most significantly, the opportunity for character development has been restricted.

This brings me to a brief discussion of the two performances I saw last week, led by Teresa Reichlen’s Odette/Odile, and Sara Mearns’s performance in the same role at Saturday’s matinee. The performances were significantly different. Ms. Reichlen’s clean line and crisp execution, which her long legs emphasized, dominated her portrayal in both roles, but her ability to communicate the pathos in the role of Odette was transmitted monochromatically. She was a regal swan queen, an essential ingredient in the role, but needs to emote more. More character display would help her Odile as well, but Ms. Reichlen is naturally physically irresistible and a well-placed smile, which Ms. Reichlen provided at strategic intervals, is obviously sufficient to believably entrap her Siegfried.

Odette is Ms. Mearns’s finest role. Ms. Mearns naturally emotes sorrow, a quality that seems to permeate most of her performances, at times pushing the pathos over the top. On Saturday, however, her portrayal was relatively restrained and completely under control. She was a victim, but not a pathetic one. While to me she was not as technically clean as Ms. Reichlen (poses tend to run together, perhaps a product of a more compact and broad body structure that naturally deemphasizes line), and at times looked like a frightened animal (abetted, perhaps, by make-up that made her look unnaturally vacant when directly facing the audience), her portrayal of Odette was generally superb. Her Odile was less seductive than the character must be for my taste, but given that being a siren is not part of Ms. Mearns’s natural stage character, her portrayal of Odile was more than adequate. Given the hype that has accompanied her performances, I found it surprising that she was not able to convert her inherent strength into the role’s pyrotechnics (her fouettes, for example, were solidly executed and did not waiver horizontally, but she traveled upstage to downstage, far downstage, throughout), but to me such technical benchmarks are not critical. Overall, it was a stellar performance.

As the respective Prince Siegfrieds, Tyler Angle and Jared Angle each gave their usual commendable portrayals, with Tyler Angle being somewhat more engaged and animated.

At Friday’s performance, Harrison Ball, in his debut as the Jester, was wonderful. Mr. Ball’s height provides a very different stage image than the more compact Daniel Ulbricht, who reprised his portrayal on Saturday. While Mr. Ulbricht was the consummate technician and jester-of-all-trades, Mr. Ball was less comfortable-looking, but in a way, less forced and more natural. From a distance, he was a Jester geek, a Jim Parsons of a Jester. At Friday’s performance, in the pas de trois, Taylor Stanley (Benno), and Ashly Isaacs did fine jobs in their debuts. But Lauren Lovette, also in a role debut, took her performance in the pas de trois to another level. Impossibly, Ms. Lovette added unexpected flair and phrasing to her performance, embellishments that normally must await some passage of time to attain a comfort level with the choreography. For Ms. Lovette, remarkable debuts have become the norm. On Saturday, Erica Pereira, Anthony Huxley (Benno), and Brittany Pollack were the effervescent dancers in the pas de trois.

While a detailed listing of other performance credits is not possible here, highlights include Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Abi Stafford, and Joaquin De Luz in Saturday’s pas de quatre (with Ms. Stafford back to form I haven’t seen in many seasons); Ms. Lovette (partnered by Antonio Carmena on Saturday and Devin Alberda, in his role debut), at both performances of the Neapolitan Dance; Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramassar in Saturday’s Russian Dance; Likolani Brown as one of the Six Princesses on Friday; Gretchen Smith and Justin Peck leading Friday’s Hungarian Dance; and, in one of those performances of a ‘small’ role that demands that the audience wake up and take notice, Meagan Mann’s startlingly good performance in the Spanish Dance on Friday.

Mention must also be made of the extraordinary work by the young dancers of the School of American Ballet who were integrated into this production: the three ‘Small Jesters’ who accompanied the Jester in Act I (Colby Clark, Lleyton Ho, and Maximilian Brooking Landegger, all, as I recall, veterans of “Nutcracker” performances as well), and sixteen other SAB students (8/8) who enlivened Act I’s village dances. They were fabulous.

Finally, the NYCB Orchestra demonstrated yet again that it is incomparable. Daniel Capps led a blistering pace on Friday, and Andrews Sill a somewhat more moderated pace on Saturday (but still faster by far than the pace of other productions). Although there were a series of minor off-notes at each performance, overall the orchestra was concert-level brilliant, and a vital component of the audience’s experience. Indeed, notwithstanding the sets and costumes, at each of the two performances I saw (and, based on information, at the other performances as well), the full-house audiences were engaged and responded enthusiastically to every aspect of this production. As I have previously observed, regardless of faults any particular production may appear to have, “Swan Lake” is bulletproof.