[Additional performance photographs will be added upon receipt]
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
February 11, 13 afternoon and evening, and 15, 2022
Swan Lake Program I: Serenade, Andantino, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Swan Lake
Swan Lake Program II: The Four Temperaments, Sonatine, Black Swan Pas de Deux, Swan Lake
New York City Ballet’s Winter 2022 Season was supposed to include a spate of performances of Peter Martins’s full length version of Swan Lake. Before the season began, and for unstated reasons that I won’t speculate about here, that plan got scuttled in favor of presenting two different programs of George Balanchine’s now rarely seen one-act Swan Lake.
Accordingly, for twelve consecutive performances spanning nine days, which will conclude on February 20, NYCB will have presented two similar programs, dubbed Swan Lake I and Swan Lake II, each concluding with the one-act Swan Lake. Perhaps as a peace offering to those audience members who’d already purchased tickets expecting to see the evening-length version, each program includes one or another Black Swan-related pas de deux. Each program also features two other dances that bear no relationship to Swan Lake – aside from containing soaring dancers and emotions.
To date I’ve seen four of these programs (two each of Swan Lake I and Swan Lake II), which I’ll opine on below.
The programs I saw on February 11 (the opening night of the series), the matinee and evening of February 13, and February 15, were marked by several brilliant performances, including Mira Nadon and Chun Wei Chan’s sensational dual role debuts in Black Swan Pas de Deux Tuesday night; the February 11 program in its entirety (including the finest overall performance of Serenade in my memory, and with Sterling Hyltin delivering the definitive “waltz girl”); and Indiana Woodward in anything she danced. But since I’ve not previously reviewed the evening’s centerpiece, Balanchine’s Swan Lake, I’ll begin with that. The other dances will be discussed somewhat more succinctly thereafter, paired based on their mirrored positions in each program. There’s a lot of stage ground to cover.
George Balanchine’s Swan Lake
Somehow I managed to avoid seeing Balanchine’s one act version of Swan Lake until last Friday. Had I seen it before other versions, I may not have had as long a period of adjustment to the “standard” versions as I did.
Let me explain. I don’t recall when I was first exposed to Swan Lake, but (eliminating any excerpts I may have seen on the Ed Sullivan Show) I think it was an early production by American Ballet Theatre. I don’t recall the cast, but I do recall being very bored with the slow pace: it seemingly went on and on, and on… It wasn’t until I understood and was open to the intricacies of it that I grew to love it. [My first exposure to The Sleeping Beauty had the same impact on me.] I think I would have appreciated this one-act version more had I initially seen it, if for no other reason than that it is shorter and proceeds faster – and because I wouldn’t have known the way Swan Lake was supposed to be.
Having now seen it three times (I skipped the Sunday evening Swan Lake to avoid predicted icy road conditions), my critical analysis is decisively … indecisive.
Balanchine’s incarnation has as much to do with the “real” Swan Lake ballet as a picture postcard has of the scene depicted; it’s nice to look at, but it’s not like being there – even granted that the “there” to which the “being there” refers is not real. It’s definitely inferior to the usual four act Swan Lake. But, if one accepts it for what it is and avoids the temptation to compare it to four-act versions (with or without a Prologue), it really isn’t fowl play.
Although the good parts of Balanchine’s Swan Lake get buried by some highly questionable decision-making, I understand, at least to some extent, what Balanchine was trying to do. And after all this is Balanchine, and parts of this version are actually an improvement over current versions allegedly based on the original, or some of the many descendants thereof.
Putting this in context requires a brief, and admittedly superficial, discussion of Swan Lake’s history.
Unlike other fairy / folk tales, the origins of the Swan Lake story are unclear at best. Few of the potential sources – which emanate from an amalgam of European folk and literary foundations – really fit. One purported source appears to come close to the story as presented by Matthew Bourne in his version. A less commonly known theory traces part of it back to Norse sources: e.g., Odin being the all-powerful god / wizard, and Odile being Odin’s daughter. [Get it? Odin … Odile.]
Even the ballet’s original author is unclear: the initial libretto was written either by Julius Reisinger (most likely in collaboration with another), choreographer of the original Bolshoi 1877 production, or by the Moscow Imperial Theater’s Director at the time and one of its dancers (Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Geltser respectively), perhaps with help from Tchaikovsky himself, or a combination of the above, or none of the above. One thing is quite clear – the 1877 production’s libretto, though it may be closer to whatever the original sources were, bears little relationship to the libretto for Marius Petipa’s 1895 St. Petersburg production, which forms the basis for most of the four-act versions seen today. To complicate things further, there were intermediate productions between 1877 and 1895, including a one-act version, and a plethora of alternate versions mounted since 1895.
It’s fascinating to go down this rabbit-hole, and although I have the inclination, I don’t have the time (so save your emails – I don’t pretend to have expertise in Swan Lake history. [There are an abundance of commentaries about Swan Lake and its origins. For an interesting, and relatively brief, discussion of Swan Lake’s narrative and production sources, see an essay on the Royal Opera House website that I stumbled upon, including comments thereto: “The Swan Lake mystery: An amalgam of different fairytales” written by Rachel Beaumont in 2015. And for a comprehensive summary (from which much of the above was gleaned), one can also visit Wikipedia.]
It’s conceivable that Balanchine’s one-act version goes back to some original source or intermediate production in some way, but I doubt it. [Except … that Norse source might have been an impetus for Balanchine’s changing the ballet’s locale from Central Europe to the frozen North, which Martins’s version subsequently followed.] Rather, to me (and admittedly without original or even substantive research) his one-act Swan Lake is “just” Balanchine being Balanchine. In other narrative ballets, he cut whatever he saw as excess baggage to the bone; he does the same thing here – by eliminating any references, direct or indirect, to Odile.
The story in Balanchine’s Swan Lake is purely one of a swan queen who can never escape the grip of the sorcerer / wizard / omnipotent god Von Rothbart [a/k/a Rotbart (“red beard”), which suggests yet another potential story source: Barbarossa (“red beard”) a 12th Century Holy Roman Emperor usually referred to as Frederick I. It just gets curioser and curioser…] The love story presented here between Siegfried and Odette provides rationale for the ballet (and connects it with Act II in the “standard” versions), but it’s doomed from the start. There may be a love story here, but there’s no tragedy.
If the fact that Odette can never escape is a given, than nothing else really matters. Consequently, in addition to streamlining the choreography, there’s no visualization in Balanchine’s version of a “pre-kidnapping” of Princess Odette, no mime, no Benno, no Jester, no Queen Mother, no Princesses (for the Prince to marry), no Ballroom Scene, and no folk variations (and I’m sure I’ve missed other “no’s”). However, excising Odile allows Balanchine to concentrate on the two lead characters, and on Ivanov’s choreography, without letting anything else get in his way. [Aside from looking like a cross between an owl, an eagle, a rhinoceros, and Chewbacca, all on steroids, this Von Rothbart has little to do beyond corralling his swans and keeping them forever feathered.]
Notwithstanding overwhelming opinions that I’ve heard from others to the contrary, there are good things to find in this production. According to the program note, Balanchine based his choreography on Ivanov’s choreography from Act II of the 1895 production. Although this provides the bulk of the basic choreography for Odette and Prince Siegfried, the changed choreography for the corps has Balanchine’s mark all over it. Particularly impressive to me are two dances inserted to replace some of the corps and “big swan”/ “little swan” segments of Act II in standard productions: one called “Pas de Neuf,” the other “Valse Bluette.“ The music for one or the other may be included in standard four act productions, but I don’t recall hearing or seeing them presented independently as they are here. [The music for Pas de Neuf is essentially the same music that Kevin McKenzie used for his transitional scene between Act III and his Act IV for ABT’s current production.] Each is led by one ballerina, with the former including eight other swans, the latter eleven. Each is marvelous. Together with the choreography for the full corps, which itself is far more interesting than much of the choreography in other versions I’ve seen, this aspect of his Swan Lake is Balanchine at his best.
The other positive about Balanchine’s one-act version is that, visually, it’s far superior to the full-length version created by Peter Martins. Balanchine here changes the location of the “swan lake” from the mountains of Central Europe to some cold, northern environment, with fake icicles dripping from the overhead hanging curtains to give it emphasis. The icicles are silly, but the environment is beautifully executed (designed by Alain Vaes, the current set is the third revision of the set from the original 1951 City Center production). It’s far more visually welcoming than the ultra-Danish-contemporary-abstract set created for the Martins version, which, though I’ve grown somewhat used to it, is universally loathed. When the curtain opens on the lovely swan lake scene, at most of the performances I attended the audience spontaneously broke into applause, as if in great relief. The costumes are a different matter, which I’ll address below.
And relative to other versions, this production proceeds at NYCB breakneck speed. Getting things to move along and not excessively milk the maudlin longer than necessary is commendable, even if at times the pace may have been too fast.
All this is nice, but there are so many negatives.
First, the absence of even a minimal amount of mime is a serious miscalculation: there’s no explanation of how Odette got to be where she is. She’s obviously trapped by Von Rothbart, but is she human or a was she a swan ab initio? We don’t know. She falls for a mortal but can’t do anything about it – which she probably should have known from the beginning since her possible freedom / redemption isn’t on the table anymore. And even assuming the viewer imputes the Swan Queen’s background from other productions, there’s nothing in this version that shows them swearing their love for each other, since that act of love is now irrelevant.
And then there’s the butchering of Tchaikovsky’s score. Well, sure, Tchaikovsky’s score has been butchered before, and the score we’re now familiar with was itself doctored after Tchaikovsky’s death by Riccardo Drigo (and it’s been cut and pasted further many times since 1895). But although here we still have the musical essence of Acts II and a small part of Act IV, since Balanchine pared the choreography, the score, even for Act II, had to be pared as well. Despite the smoothly constructed segues, the score still sounds truncated.
More critical to me than anything else is that there’s no theme of good vs. evil, no irresistible temptation, no dialectic to interest an audience or for an audience to ponder, and no apotheosis or other such resolution to bring the story to a satisfactory end. Zilch. All there is is this icy lake of shape-shifting swans. It’s like a … postcard, albeit with moving parts.
Some other serious concerns: if you’re reducing a story to its essence, what’s the point of having all those hunters in ridiculous-looking costumes enter the lake area at the beginning of this version, even before the Prince appears? Maybe showing the Prince as having an entourage is appropriate – and maybe those costumes are proper attire for a hunting party in the Middle Ages. But even accepting those premises, why do these same hunters, after being banned from hunting the swans, suddenly appear from the wings to act as pseudo-pillars against which the corps of swans lean – and then quickly exit and then just as quickly repeat the process? It’s senseless if something resembling a consistent story is being presented. Obviously, here the story really isn’t the point.
And why did Balanchine change Odette’s final exit to a walk-off, rather than seeing the shape shifting swan shift shapes and exit with swan arms? The corps may not be skilled enough to appropriately execute swan arms, but the principal ballerinas certainly are.
And then there are the costumes for the swans. The swan corps are all dressed in soft tutus modified so that the swans’ rears appear to be larger, and hang lower, than the front – mimicking, I suppose, a real swan’s appearance. [And I’ve been told by a reliable source that this costume design existed prior to the piece’s 1986 revision.] Ok. But then why isn’t Odette provided with a comparably modified tutu? Aside from being their queen (she wears a crown), is she otherwise different from the other swans? Why?
This raises a collateral observation, perhaps one more pertinent today than it might have appeared in 1986 (or when Balanchine reportedly ordered black tutu costume material in 1981, prior to his death in 1983). As somewhat of a rationale, Balanchine is quoted in the program note as having said “there are black swans as well.” And indeed there are Swan Lake productions that dress some of the corps swans, particularly in Act IV, in black. But why are all the corps swans here all black? More importantly, what does it say when the lower-class swans are black and have swan rears, while the queen swan appears snow white without any pseudo swan-body characteristics? In today’s climate, even if there was a reason behind Balanchine’s decision (perhaps he simply wanted to create another black-and-white ballet), this costume-branding should be reconsidered and can be easily remedied.
So, ultimately, is Balanchine’s Swan Lake the real Swan Lake? No. But … is it worth seeing? Sure – even if only for the corps dancing and the snapshot of Act II that it provides. And I must admit that the more frequently one sees Balanchine’s Swan Lake, the more a viewer is able to set aside what he / she may have known about the Swan Lake original and evaluate and accept Balanchine’s Swan Lake for what it is rather than for what it’s not. If we can accept Scotch Symphony as a Balanchine revision to La Sylphide, an audience, and particularly a NYCB audience, can accept this too. [And they do. Each Swan Lake performance I viewed was followed by a highly enthusiastic audience response.] But, even at the risk of losing its built-in audience, I wish it had been titled something like “Swan Symphony” rather than Swan Lake.
In the three sets of lead performances I saw, Sara Mearns danced the role on Friday with her usual, but here appropriate, mournful countenance and technical brilliance. On Sunday afternoon, Teresa Reichlen delivered far more emotion to what there is of the role, without sacrificing technique. And Tiler Peck’s Odette on Tuesday night was performed on a high technical level as well, with a smidgeon more emotion than in Mearns’s performance. The Siegfrieds are a different story. Partnering Mearns, Russell Janzen appeared even more wooden than the role, as modified here, encourages. On Sunday evening, Tyler Angle injected the role with more pizazz (matching Reichlen’s emotional level), but a bald-headed prince is distracting, and doesn’t quite meet the princely appearance requisites. Last night’s Siegfried, Joseph Gordon, was the finest of the three. His demeanor was appropriate at all times, he was fully engaged, and he looked and acted like a prince.
Of the “lead” swans in each of the “new” independent dances Ashley Hod (Sunday afternoon), Mary Elizabeth Sell (last night), and particularly Emily Kikta (Friday night) did very fine work in the Valse Bluette; as did Ashley Laracey (Friday), Claire Kretzschmar (Saturday afternoon), and Megan LeCrone (last night) in the Pas de Neuf.
Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux / Black Swan Pas de Deux
Of the four performances I attended of the two Odile-related alternating pieces – two each of the Black Swan Pas de Deux, excised from the Martins full length production, and Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux – one was a bit disappointing; one was very good; one was better than very good, and one was spectacular.
I have commented frequently on NYCB’s recently-promoted Soloist Mira Nadon since she first joined the company. And Chun Wei Chan, a recent lateral from Houston Ballet, has been impressive in his NYCB outings to date. Consequently, one of the most eagerly awaited performances this season was their mutual role debuts in Tuesday night’s Black Swan Pas de Deux.
It seems impossible, but Nadon’s performance exceeded even the wildest expectations – and Chan’s performance was her match. Neither was perfect – which, at this stage, is a good thing. Considering their inevitable artistic and personal growth, and barring any unforeseen developments, the knowledge that they will improve further is as scary as it is inevitable.
I saw little to criticize in Chan’s performance. He was an effective (but not controlling) partner, and in his solos, his leaps were superb, his turns a la seconde were executed strongly, and (with the exception of the last one) his tours were finished in perfect fifth.
Nadon was “on” as soon as she hit the stage: I saw no indication of hesitation or apprehension then, or at any time later in the piece. She made the essential indicia of temptation / seduction in this version look almost real, and, with Chan partnering her, executed everything else flawlessly. Then came the coda (which the NYCB Orchestra plays at breathtaking speed), and instead of being, or appearing to be, particularly careful (which would not have been surprising for a role debut as significant as this one), she let loose. The number and quality of the obligatory fouettés are not necessarily the gauge of a performance’s success, but they can take a performance to a higher level and can whip an audience into a frenzy. She delivered a rock-solid double, then a single, and repeated the same sequence two more times. Then singles until somewhere down the road she did another double. Then singles. I lost count at 25, but she went way beyond that, and any traveling downstage was minimal. This isn’t unusual for a seasoned principal ballerina, but for one so young and relatively new to the company, who was a member of the corps little more than a month ago, and in a role debut to boot, it was an extraordinary display of self-confidence.
As the fouettés neared conclusion she started to falter, but instead of being careful and cutting out that last few, she pushed to get them all done. This might not have been the best of decisions (it was almost disastrous – she lost her balance coming out of that last fouetté, but somehow avoided falling), but it displayed an admirable quality of perseverance that, at least to an audience, rightly or wrongly is evidence of her stage character and perseverance. When it looked like she might lose it during that final fouetté, the audience gasped. When she saved it, they roared … and didn’t stop.
Nadon is blessed with what, to me, is a magnetic and sensual appearance. Even in a crowd of other dancers she stands out: one’s eyes naturally turn to her. And despite her commanding presence, she never comes across as unnecessarily aggressive or intentionally dominating: she just does what she does.
Many spectacularly successful ballerinas have said that Odile is far more difficult to properly master than Odette – which to my observation is true. I’ve posted previously that the finest Odile I can recall seeing (and I’ve seen many) was in a Swan Lake performance at the Met by the Stuttgart Ballet in the mid-1970s. In her Odile, Birgit Keil exuded a level of personal magnetism and an innate sensuality that made the seduction of Siegfried (and of the audience) compelling and irresistible. When she learns to take her seductiveness beyond where it’s programmed into facial expressions, and with naturally maturity in other respects, Nadon has the potential to equal or surpass that. She may be one of those rare ballerinas for whom portraying Odette will prove more difficult to carry off than Odile, but at this point, I wouldn’t bet against her.
Friday evening’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, performed by Peck and Mejia, was also eagerly awaited, and was also superbly executed – though no one expected less. Peck’s execution now may still show evidence of her recent injury, but if one wasn’t aware of it, one wouldn’t have noticed. And somehow she managed to take her legendary performance in this same piece with Joaquin De Luz in September 2018, prior to his retirement (which has been memorialized in many internet postings since then) to an even higher level. At the appropriate time she not only delivered three sets of triple fouettés at the outset, she combined them with concurrently executed travelling port de bras (from up to down) during the course of each set. She followed these fouettés with her idiosyncratic and breathtaking transitional phrase, and as they did four years ago, Friday’s audience gasped in disbelief.
Mejia focused on being a supportive and careful partner, but his extraordinary leaps were on full display as well, and his performance was as exciting to watch as Peck’s. His turns a la seconde were a bit off (he seemed to start late, finished early, and weren’t as spectacularly executed as he’s done previously), but the audience was buoyed by his buoyant stage personality, and didn’t seem to notice. Regardless, it was a masterful outing by both of them.
On Sunday evening, Sara Adams debuted in the same piece, partnered by Harrison Ball. Each delivered a highly credible and exciting performance, albeit not as spectacular as Peck / Mejia – but for role debuts, each was far better than merely satisfactory. It’s good to see Adams, who’s been a Soloist for some time, finally being given some roles that can test her and show her talent; and Ball, as he did earlier this season, appears focused on delivering promotion-ready performances. The full house (even more remarkable than usual considering this was Super Bowl Sunday) greeted their performances with considerable enthusiasm.
On Sunday afternoon, Isabella LaFreniere and Peter Walker danced the Black Swan Pas de Deux. They did fine work technically, but as proficient as she is, LaFreniere appeared hesitant and too careful. In the same vein, she changed her facial expression only when it was programmed for her to do so – otherwise her demeanor never changed. And, perhaps as a consequence of understandable apprehension, she was focused on the choreography rather than on controlling her appearance, and as a result, whether she was smiling or not (it was difficult to tell), her upper front teeth were constantly exposed and became a distraction. LaFreniere, also recently promoted to Soloist, can handle the choreography, but this distraction needs to be address.
Serenade and The Four Temperaments
The Swan Lake programming kicked off on Friday with a glorious performance of Serenade, featuring Hyltin as the “waltz girl,” Erica Pereira as the “jumping girl,” and Emilie Gerrity as the “Angel of Death,” with a role debut by Amar Ramasar as Hyltin’s partner and Aaron Sanz in the Orpheus-like role. I mentioned above that this performance, overall, was the finest Serenade I can recall; it was a magical performance. The corps executed superbly; Pereira delivered a wonderful performance, with a markedly upbeat demeanor compared to other ballerinas I’ve recently seen in the role; and Hyltin took her performance, which I’ve previously seen and reported on favorably, to a yet higher level.
There are aspects of any great ballet that one sees for the first time, or anew, with each performance. Here I saw Hyltin stretch time the way Peck so famously does, with compelling phrasing that stretched the parameters of the music and choreography without exceeding their limits. Her performance was extraordinary.
I paid particular attention to the phrasing I saw on Friday at the second Serenade performance this season (on Sunday evening), checking to see if I’d simply missed seeing it previously, but I saw nothing remotely comparable in Mearns’s performance in the same role (and her port de bras as she exits stage left early in the piece looked like she was trying to climb an invisible wall, and needs to be addressed). On the other hand, as fine as Pereira’s outing as the “jumping girl” was, Woodward’s performance in the same role was still more effervescent, and even more memorable.
Balanchine’s 1946 masterpiece, The Four Temperaments, was given similar and generally stellar performances on Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening. Hindemith’s music, together with Balanchine’s illumination of it, is a soaring proclamation of the human condition, demonstrating in its conclusion that the whole human is far more than the sum of his or her emotional component parts.
The fact that I’m highlighting below some individual performances and not others is not an indication that those I don’t mention were in any way deficient.
On Sunday, Anthony Huxley, who always seems to dance superbly on his own, was outstanding in the Melancholic variation, as was Adrian Danchig-Waring in the Phlegmatic. Alexa Maxwell and Sanz stood out in the third part of the introductory theme segments. The remaining featured dancers were Olivia Boisson and Lars Nelson in the first introduction dance, Adams and Devin Alberda in the second, Gerrity and Chan in the Sanguinic Variation, and LeCrone in the Choleric.
Tuesday night, Ashley Hod, partnered by Peter Walker, was superb in the Sanguinic Variation, and Kikta was a dominating lead in the Choleric. In the introductory Theme dances, Jacqueline Bologna and, particularly, the very intense Joseph Fahoury stood out in the first dance. The remaining featured dancers were Mimi Staker and Kennard Henson, and Miriam Miller and Alex Knight in the Theme’s second and third dance, Gonzalo Garcia in Melancholic, and Ramasar in Phlegmatic. All except Miller, Knight, Garcia and Ramasar were role debuts.
Andantino and Sonatine
Andantino and Sonatine appear to have been added to these programs to provide refreshing breaks from the more intellectually and emotionally demanding other program pieces, and they did. I don’t recall seeing either previously.
Choreographed in 1981 by Jerome Robbins to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Andantino is a delightful little dance (it lasts five minutes or so). Essentially it’s another very fine piano ballet (the pianist at both performances was Jonathan Howard Katz). To my eye Andantino includes nods to Robbins’s own Dances at a Gathering and Other Dances, and in one brief piece encapsulates the sense of humanity that distinguishes his dances from so many others.
At Friday night’s performance, Woodward (subbing for Megan Fairchild), in a role debut, was partnered by Garcia; and on Sunday evening Emma Von Enck, recently promoted to Soloist, was partnered by Huxley (both in role debuts. Von Enck shined in her debut, as she seems to do routinely now (like Nadon, though in a completely different way, she draws eyes), and while Huxley did better toward the beginning when he danced solo, he softened as the piece progressed (or grew more confident) and actually smiled. In their Friday performance, Garcia, as usual, was a masterful partner, but Woodward’s performance was utterly sublime. She danced with an infectious joie de vivre that lit up the stage, weaving together an ingenue’s youthful enthusiasm with a more mature understanding (something like the emotional depth that the central pas de deux in Antony Tudor’s The Leaves Are Fading requires). Woodward’s range appears to be limitless.
Balanchine choreographed Sonatine for the 1975 Ravel Festival, to Ravel’s Sonatine for Piano. It seems to last a bit longer than Andantino, and to me it has less texture, but it’s another highly enjoyable little dance. It features an on-stage pianist (Elaine Chelton at both performances), and the dancers to some extent are emotionally responding to the music. This dance isn’t nearly as complex or as lofty as, for example, Balanchine’s Duo Concertante, but it doesn’t try to be.
Ashley Laracey (in a role debut) and Taylor Stanley danced at both Sonatine performances. Laracey can be a light and lyrical beacon, and she exuded that demeanor here. Stanley seemed more tentative and more tightly wound on Sunday afternoon, but he was Laracey’s equal in all respects Tuesday night.
Each of these programs is highly entertaining, and provides a significant overview of ballets. One person seated near me on Friday, speaking to his companion, described it best: “That was a lot of great ballet!”