Paris Opera Ballet
Swan Lake
The Joyce Theater (streamed online)

March 19, 2021

Jerry Hochman

[The photos originally included with this review, which did not reflect this production, have been replaced.

The maxim that familiarity breeds contempt is often accepted as gospel. In ballet, however, I’ve found that familiarity breeds … greater familiarity, and the sense that this is the way it should be. Consequently, the familiar choreography often becomes a visual template for the evaluation of different interpretations of the same score, or the same story. So it was with my viewing of Rudolf Nureyev’s incarnation of Swan Lake, created in 1984 while he was Paris Opera Ballet’s artistic director, which was streamed last week by The Joyce Theater as part of its Spring 2021 online season. [I believe I saw it once previously, but recall nothing whatsoever of the choreography or any modifications to the story; I only recall Sylvie Guillem.]

Amandine Albisson, Mathieu Ganio
and the Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Svetlana Loboff

Based on this sole viewing, I see Nureyev’s Swan Lake as relatively mediocre with respect to its original choreography (with exceptions detailed below), although this might be based on my greater familiarity with other, and what I consider to be superior, versions. More importantly, this Swan Lake, described as “Freudian” in the program note, is far too muddy as presented to support any specific conclusion about what’s really happening, much less what his dream might mean. However, even with a weak “dream” component, there’s more here than meets the eye, and, in hindsight, I appreciate it more now than I did while I watched it.

The basic choreography that Nureyev reinvents (that is, aside from the familiar essence of Petipa / Ivanov Acts 2 and 3, and to a lesser extent, Act 4) is unremarkable – although the patterning, seen from downward-facing camera angles, is often spectacular. The corps dances that permeate Act 1, while executed enthusiastically by the bubbly and thoroughly engaging POB corps (abetted by their wonderfully vibrant costumes, designed by Franca Squarciapino), seem to have been choreographed by rote, with a plethora of repetitious segments of sequential or mirrored groups of dancers — most often groups of four, but it varies) traveling first in one direction, then the other. And even aside from its bizarre (but consistent with his theme) ending, Act 4 was a mess: different only for the sake of being different rather than to improve (or streamline, as with Kevin McKenzie’s Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre) the end result.

Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake”
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

That having been said, there are certain clearly communicated choreographic choices that are idiosyncratic, more excitingly executed, and that relate what I see as Nureyev’s intent beyond simply being the visualization of a prince’s rebellion against his tutor’s direction to relinquish his ideal and accept reality.

As the Prologue begins, Siegfried is asleep on his throne downstage right. The set (designed by Ezio Frigerio) is anchored by a huge upstage rectangular construction that looks like an open, columned “frame” with steps at the bottom. The frame may not be Freudian in and of itself, but it’s a wonderfully apt metaphor for the way Siegfried sees his life: elegantly appointed, but with nothing “real” within.

Siegfried soon sees (he dreams it; the audience sees it) a young woman. Very quickly (too quickly) the woman’s demeanor becomes vacant, and she’s drawn to something emanating from behind the frame. In short order Siegfried dreams (we see) Rothbart materialize from the wings. He captures the woman (not difficult – she’s already been commandeered by his unseen force), they fall behind and beneath the frame, and then they rise up from behind the frame as if being carried off toward some distant place, she outfitted in white feathers. Throughout, Siegfried calmly sleeps on his throne, not moving a muscle.

It is the continuing presence of the frame against which or behind which the ballet plays out that the viewer must accept as indicating that all that follows the Prologue is part of Siegfried’s dream: Siegfried’s throne, with him asleep in it, is a presence in Act I, but he’s quickly awakened by several young female celebrants and reluctantly joins the festivities. As Act 1 ends, the throne completely disappears. In other words, everything that happens after the Prologue is in “real time,” making the continuing existence of the dream a leap of faith rather than something that can be easily accepted. That’s unfortunate if the dream is supposed to have great significance – it would have made more sense, and would have closed the thematic loop, if the audience could have seen him dreaming in his chair at both ends of the ballet. [A seemingly simple remedy might have been to use a Siegfried double to view the ballet’s final image and pound his fists into the floor, and to place the “real” and “still sleeping” Siegfried in his chair when the ballet ends (think the “real” Kitri at the beginning and end of the dream scene in Don Quixote).]

However, the “fact” that this is all part of Siegfried’s dream is somewhat of a trap that skirts the real point that I see being made. His dream isn’t necessarily of wish-fulfillment; rather, it may be, and to me more likely is intended to be, the manifestation of repressed emotions.

Amandine Albisson, Mathieu Ganio,
and the Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Svetlana Loboff

Throughout the ballet, Siegfried (portrayed by Mathieu Ganio) appears flat, relatively emotionless, forcing a smile only when societal obligations require. Clearly, at least to me, he’s not happy with the way his life is supposed to evolve. Even his introspective solo moments in Act 1 are executed with a dearth of depressed passion. His Odette (Amandine Albisson) could be described similarly. However, the ballet’s most animated character is Wolfgang (François Alu), the prince’s tutor, who doubles as Rothbart and who, regardless of his incarnation, pushes Siegfried’s emotional buttons. He (there may be two “characters,” but they deliver a collective message) has the ballet’s best choreography and its most vivid dramatic and emotional moments. And it is Wolfgang / Rothbart’s presence that gives Siegfried, and the ballet, direction. All in all, this is Wolfgang / Rothbart’s ballet.

François Alu and the Paris Opera Ballet
in Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Svetlana Loboff

To my eye, Wolfgang appears less as a teacher / tutor and more as a lure or pathfinder who Siegfried feels obligated to resist. [In this sense, the ballet has a similar feel to Maurice Bejart’s Song of a Wayfarer; except that there the “teacher” was a guide; here he’s far more intrusive.] Even in Act 3, in which the attraction between Siegfried and Odile is supposed to be the motivating force, it’s Rothbart who pulls the strings. The classic Odile / Siegfried duet is here replaced by a pas de trois in which the ever-present Rothbart very obviously (too obviously) controls them both; directing them – teaching them – with the same bite and sense of inevitability as Wolfgang does when he “teaches” Siegfried. [The visualization of Rothbart’s instructions in Act 3 mirrors the visualization of Wolfgang’s instructions to Siegfried in Act 1.] And what does Wolfgang / Rothbart teach Siegfried? Not to stop vacillating and pick one of the princesses paraded before him in Act 3, and not to abandon Siegfried’s supposed sense of some “ideal woman” that would result in the same thing. Rather, he teaches Siegfried to resist all that, to accept that his “ideal” is someone else’s, and to push him in a different direction, the direction that Siegfried seems really to want but is unwilling or unable to accept. It’s this that, to me, makes Nureyev’s Swan Lake “Freudian,” and that makes his interpretation more complex than it first appears.

(l-r) Mathieu Ganio, Amandine Albisson, François Alu
and the Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake”
Photo by Svetlana Loboff

Accordingly, as I see it, Nureyev’s Swan Lake is about repressed emotions. [Save your emails: I don’t pretend to be expert in either Freud or psychology.]  If there is doubt about this based on the way I see the relationship between Siegfried and Wolfgang / Rothbart, one can return to Act 1, and to the Prologue, for support. As the Act 1 birthday celebrations are about to conclude, the townswomen disappear, and it is solely the townsmen (sixteen of them) who dance what is often described as the “nobles’ dance” (the Polonaise), providing powerful execution, and a sense of direction, to what I’d often considered an anemic and relatively insipid dance episode. And then there’s the characterization of the Queen, who in this version appears more pompous and distant than in other versions: a somewhat repellant mother / female presence.

Most significantly, however, is the Prologue, which here opaquely presents the prism through which I think the subsequent ballet must be viewed.  The woman in Siegfried’s dream, his supposed “ideal,” is seen, at least to me, more as an unexciting obligation than the ravishing young princess who might fuel a prince’s desire and prompt his dream of an ideal mate: she’s costumed in a conservative and restricting (as opposed to a dynamic and flowing) dress, with a distant (as opposed to enchanting) demeanor even before Rothbart gets to her. She’s not his ideal; she’s his expectation of what his ideal will have to be. It’s this expectation, this sense of inevitability, that Wolfgang teaches is false, and that Rothbart, in Siegfried’s dream, makes disappear.

So although Nureyev’s Swan Lake is not an all (almost) male ballet as is Matthew Bourne’s version, it’s definitely a Swan Lake with a male point of view and a repressed male-relationship point of view. Maybe it’s not as clearly expressed as it might have been because almost 40 years ago such expressions may still have required misdirection and opacity – repression, perhaps, being the better part of valor.

The performance of Nureyev’s Swan Lake streamed by The Joyce was filmed in 2016, in a performance at the Opera Bastile. So, regardless of its quality, it may not reflect the company as it is today. Further, my sense of the leads (Albisson and Ganio) may be tainted by what I see as Nureyev’s intent to make their relationship relatively superfluous. But even though her Odette was not remarkable, Albisson’s Odile was alive and, at times, voracious, and she handled the technical demands admirably. On the other hand, while his relatively flat demeanor may have been a requirement of this production, and although there were moments when his Siegfried actually smiled (to me the equivalent of air kisses), Ganio, technically, seemed relatively weak compared to other Siegfrieds I’ve seen. On the third hand, perhaps as a consequence of his dual role’s more complex requirements, Alu executed superbly – and was so recognized by the live audience based on my unofficial applause-meter.

Paris Opera Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake”
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

As for other dancers, I didn’t read the program notes in advance, and featured dancers other than the leads were not identified in the recording. I saw several corps dancers (that is, dancing corps roles) who looked even more effervescent and capable than the others and who consistently drew my eyes, but I can’t identify them. I was particularly impressed by the execution and demeanor of three ballerinas: the two in the Act 1 Pas de Trois, and the vivacious, unusually spirited female dancer who led the Czardas in Act 3. Afterward, I checked the program. The two ballerinas in the Pas de Trois were the highly accomplished, and by now familiar, Hannah O’Neil and Léonore Baulac (and the danseur, Germain Louvet, was their equal in essential pizazz). The lead ballerina in the Czardas was Sae Eun Park. All three are now either Etoilles (Baulac) or Premières danseuses. It’s reassuring to know that even on a laptop screen, these tired old eyes can still see.

Finally, kudos to the Joyce Theater for presenting this. Its virtues aside, one of the problems that the Joyce has is its relatively small stage. As a consequence, even when presenting ballet companies known for the quality or significance of certain ballets in their repertory, these ballets can’t be presented here – at least not at the Joyce. But even though streamed programs can’t replace live-theater performances, the genie is out of the bottle. Perhaps streamed live or pre-recorded performances such as POB’s Swan Lake can be continued even after Covid restrictions end to provide large ballet companies an opportunity to present signature ballets at lower cost, to enable viewing of such programs by a greater public, and to add additional feathers to the Joyce’s cap. Just a thought.