David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 17, 2020
Grand Swan Lake
The dictionary meaning of the verb “to shanghai,” derived from the 18th and early 19th Century practice of crewing ships heading to the Orient forcibly or by trickery (i.e., kidnapping), is to abduct or coerce; to commandeer, appropriate, or hijack.
I propose a new definition: to watch Shanghai Ballet’s Grand Swan Lake, and be seduced.
I attended the opening night of the four performance run of Shanghai Ballet’s production of Swan Lake prepared for a performance that could not possibly be comparable to those productions by Russian, European, and American companies of this most iconic of ballets. At best, I thought, it would be promising.
The opening Act fulfilled all my expectations based on the admittedly few performances by Chinese ballet companies that I’ve previously seen. Very competent, very athletic, little characterization, and extraordinarily regimented. Sure enough, the dancers who executed the various Act I dances performed like automatons. Perfectly synchronized timing; perfect alignment of body, feet, hands, fingernails; everyone looked the same. And where there was supposed to be characterization, there wasn’t anything to write home to Shanghai about.
And then, slowly, I began to appreciate Artistic Director Derek Deane’s very thoughtful choreography (after Petipa and Ivanov), and recognized that in these component dances, if the execution didn’t look uniform some hypercritical reviewer like me would complain that it was performed unevenly. So I sat back, and found that although Act I was lengthy compared to the more streamlined versions that we in New York have become used to, it really wasn’t bad. In fact, it looked intriguing. Granted that this version was choreographed by Deane when he was Artistic Director of English National Ballet (1993-2001), so the overall look was not “different” (certainly not in the sense of Peter Martins’s version for New York City Ballet), but still, it was … different. These frequently boring Act I ensemble dances (which prompted the updating and streamlining they’ve received in more contemporary productions) filled the stage with energy and were fun to watch – even if they looked regimented. And the orchestral accompaniment was nothing short of fabulous: blisteringly fast paced (though not pushing the dancers beyond their capabilities), and as crisp and clean as that provided by the best of ballet orchestras: the New York City Ballet Orchestra … because it was the New York City Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Charles Barker, Principal Conductor of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra. [Wait. What?? Compared to the frequently languid pace of ABT’s Orchestra, it was as if Barker had been reborn – or had a different set of marching orders.]
And then, after a brief pause following the conclusion of Act I, the company switched gears to Act II. And because of the superb performance by QI Bingxue as the Swan Queen (I’m using the spelling and capitalization of the dancers’ names as set forth in the program), the perfectly honed corps (the flip side of being too regimented), and the modifications Deane made to the choreography, this Swan Lake performance began to take flight. And never stopped. You could have knocked me over with … a feather. This Grand Swan Lake, as it’s officially titled, is indeed Grand.
The production isn’t new – either to the ballet world, or to Shanghai Ballet. It’s been presented frequently since Deane created it in 1997, and it’s had many revisions since then. English National Ballet still performs his version, which will be staged in the round at the Royal Albert Hall later this year. Apparently it’s always been large-scale, and has always been traditional at its heart. It’s certainly possible that the changes I see in Deane’s production were adopted from other productions I’ve not seen, but it doesn’t matter – they’re wonderful. From those Act I ensemble dances, to the corps dances for Acts II and IV, to the character divertissement in Act III, everything worked brilliantly. It’s not perfect (nothing is) – I have a few quibbles, but in the overall scheme of things they’re minor [the Princess Dance (here inexplicably labelled the Fiancé Dance) is deadly dull – though this might have been by design as contrast to the Odile and Siegfried fireworks to come; Odile and Rothbart first appear in Act III accompanied by a gaggle of insect-like minions who might have been purloined from Carabosse’s entourage in The Sleeping Beauty; Odette and Siegfried’s demise seems to have been a visual afterthought; and Siegfried’s Tutor is so animated, he seems to be a preincarnation of the Energizer Bunny]. And although he danced well, WU Husheng’s Siegfried was not on the same level as that of other Siegfried’s I’ve seen. His “Hamlet” Act I solo was well done and he was a fine partner, but he was able to muster little ballon, and although there were flashes of appropriate characterization, it was most often relatively flat. For example, when the Queen (CHEN Yan) insists that he’s supposed to marry, WU’s Siegfried first mimes that he doesn’t want to, and then a split second later agrees to comply with not the slightest change of demeanor. But then, his stage mother wasn’t very animated either, so perhaps it’s in the genes.
But QI’s Odette/Odile was ballet dynamite. She danced everything cleanly and powerfully. Her acting as Odette, while not quite as understatedly tragic as others, was sufficiently compelling and her execution (although her swan arms could be better articulated) was first rate – including the struggle to and away from (and again to and from) Siegfried as Rothbart’s force pulls her away, which I’ve rarely seen done as well (I think the last time was when I saw a Royal Ballet production – which I suspect is not coincidental: Deane was a Royal Ballet Principal); she spoke mime fluently (it’s all there); and – the biggest surprise – her Odile was one of the best. She didn’t just smile; she seduced and devoured, with relish – both Siegfried and the audience. And she took direction from Rothbart many times, as Odile should do (she may be Rothbart’s daughter, but she’s his creation, and his puppet). WU’s Siegfried didn’t have a chance. And when Deane has Odile deliberately kick over a chair in triumph and derision as Act III concluded, you knew that this wasn’t your father’s Odile. The only “flaw” I saw in her performance (though I don’t really see it that way) was that she didn’t embellish her fouettes as many other Odettes now do; they were all singles. But she did them.
Act III was sublime on other levels as well. Rothbart may not be the scaly slime he is in other productions, but ZHOU Haibo’s Rothbart was a powerful, dominating bird of prey. And except for the Spanish Dance (which I’ve rarely seen look either authentic or interesting), the nationality dances were pretty good – and the Neapolitan Dance was particularly special, providing what dancers from Chinese companies are not able to provide: characterization. Set up like a pas de deux between a sweetly coquettish girl and the boy who pursues her (most viewers I spoke with saw it as derivative of Ashton; I saw Bournonville), it was a delightful surprise. The young lovers were ZHAO Meici and GONG Liwei, and ZHAO, who must have joined the company only recently (her photo is not on the company’s website) is a budding Giselle.
And then there’s the spectacle.
Everything is big in this production, but it’s awesome rather than overwhelming. The sets, designed by Peter Farmer (amplified by Howard Harrison’s lighting), aren’t nearly as elaborate as other productions (e.g., ABT). But they (and particularly the set for Act III) look that way. At times I thought that perhaps the stage action was too busy, particularly in Act I, but that might have been a function of my location, or perhaps a smaller theater stage than the production is used to (in the round, it must be … awesome).
What made the ballet splendidly grand, however, was the size of its cast, and its White Acts. The sight of at least 48 swan ballerinas (I counted more, but perhaps because I was including “featured” Big Swans and Cygnets) filling the stage with white tutus and executing Deane’s inspired choreography was … awesome. Act II evolves in breathtaking fashion as the swan army slowly populates the entire stage. It’s a powerful and beautiful vision. As the scene progresses, however, I noticed that not all the swans remained on the stage at the same time: Deane flies them in and out, avoiding swan overkill. And I must particularly recognize Deane’s choreography for Act IV. I disliked what I’d seen of that Act in legacy productions, which is one reason I welcomed Kevin McKenzie’s elimination of much of that corps work in ABT’s current production. But here, Deane makes the patterning enchanting and enticing.
I have one complaint and one concerning observation, but not with the production or the performances. At least in the West, dancers are not anonymous. The failure to list members of the company by name is egregious. The program did list major characters, but even here, except for Odette/Odile, alternative casts were listed, and figuring out who was dancing what role at which performance was daunting. The observation: out of the four performances, QI and WU danced two of them; the other two were filled by “guest artists,” including Maria Kochetkova. To me, this indicates either that the company is too thin to field a second lead cast in Grand Swan Lake (or that there was an unexpected injury to the second cast leads which could not be filled through their own ranks), or that the company opted to use presumed star power to sell tickets. Either way, and regardless of the quality of Kochetkova’s performance (which I’ll assume was top flight), it’s extremely unfortunate. The former option is somewhat scary for what appears to be a major company (or one in the making); the latter … well, we’ve been through that with ABT, and it’s the wrong policy.
Aside from that, this Shanghai Ballet performance was a knockout. In addition to Deane and the dancers, whether identified or not, credit also goes to XIN Lili, a former Shanghai Ballet Principal and its Director since 2011.
I hope Shanghai Ballet returns, perhaps with a longer engagement, so we can see what else the company’s dancers can do. Regardless, this Grand Swan Lake performance will be one that I’ll remember. I’ve been Shanghaied.