Ulyana Lopatkina in 'Swan Lake'.  Photo © Natasha Razina

Ulyana Lopatkina in ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Natasha Razina

Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY; January 15, 16, 2015

Jerry Hochman

The Mariinsky Ballet opened a ten performance engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with two of five performances of “Swan Lake”. Simply put, this 1950 production, with revised choreography and staging by Konstantin Sergeyev, should not be missed even if it means trekking to Brooklyn on a frigid winter night.

I am not a stickler for ‘authenticity’. Unless I’m promised an accurate museum quality reproduction of the 1895 version by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, my preference for “Swan Lake”, as well as other classical ballets, is that the productions breathe fresh air. Consequently, I embrace stagings that modify the legacy version to a greater or lesser extent, and frequently find productions that attempt historical accuracy to be needlessly artificial-looking and arthritic. It’s one reason why, for example, notwithstanding what some consider to be its massacre of the ballet’s final act, I consider Kevin McKenzie’s version for American Ballet Theater to be a wonderful production, one that adds an essential contemporary sensibility to the classic framework. Given this prejudice, finding this Mariinsky production to be one of the better ones I’ve seen speaks volumes.

Even in the best of productions, the first scene, Prince Siegfried’s birthday party, often looks tedious, with court dances that are stodgy and lifeless, and/or with artificial stylistic restrictions and stiff, uniform poses that looked starched and mechanical, not in any way resembling the way the people who are supposed to populate this scene would really interact. In this version, however, and even though the scene is limited to members of the court and the Prince’s upper-crust friends, the dances are celebratory and stage-spanning rather than perfunctory, with little of the stiff stylization that mars other versions. And although I don’t particularly like replacing Benno with a usually needlessly intrusive and annoying Jester, here he is more than a hyperactive acrobat off his meds – he’s somewhat of a confidante as well as an entertainer, and he has human feelings and failings (his infatuation for one of the prince’s ballerina friends who dances in the pas de trois – and who herself is given distinct character as an endearing sweetheart – is a particularly nice, somewhat commedia dell’arte –like, touch).

The White Acts are fabulous. Act I, Scene 2, though essentially similar to other classic versions, features corps patterning that looks more varied and interesting than I’ve seen in other productions. While not losing any sense of Romantic style, the patterns are not limited to lines and soft, rounded arcs. I particularly liked when the Big Swans appear for their variations from the four corners of the stage, rather than migrating downstage like everyone else.

The Mariinsky Ballet in 'Swan Lake'. Photo © Jack Vartoogian

The Mariinsky Ballet in ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Jack Vartoogian

When I first started attending ballet, I found Act III, the conclusory White Act, to be particularly difficult to get through. Not in this version. The choreography makes narrative sense, does not excessively milk the style or the action, and makes stunning, unforgettable visual statements. The brief encounter between Rothbart and Odette in which he’s obviously reveling in his conquest, during which he swings her around in a sort of death spiral, is fantastic, as is the point when Siegfried cradles her near dead body in his arms. This version’s Act II is less brilliant, but that’s more a function of the White Acts looking so good, and of ABT’s Act II being so thrillingly envisioned and executed. But even here, the story is told coherently, and the character dances (introduced by a lethal, skeletal-looking incarnation of Rothbart) vary not only by musical and ethnic style, but by form – it’s not all ‘lead couple stage center surrounded by supporting pairs’. As a result, as in the White Acts, the dancing overall is much more passionate, and more compelling to watch.

This is not to say that I don’t have quibbles with the production. Most importantly, in Scene 2, I miss the mime and the choreographic shading that tells the story and sets the mood. And there’s a point in time early in the scene where Odette runs onstage to protect her fellow swans. ‘Don’t hurt them, o great prince,’ she might be saying, ‘they’re human too.’ But here, there’s no perceived threat to protect them from. Siegfried had abandoned his cross-bow earlier, and at this point in the production looks friendly and harmless. It makes no sense. And I personally prefer to see a more exciting entrance from Odette than the walk-on here, and a visualization of the queen that makes more sense (she looks too young, with the medieval version of Big Hair, and too little attention to formality). Finally, of course, there’s the decision, politically correct in the Soviet Union of 1950, to make the end a happy one because there’s no heaven to which the dead Odette, with or without Siegfried, can ascend. So they live happily ever after. Fine. But the ‘fight’ during which Rothbart is vanquished consists of one pass during which Siegfried rips off the monster’s wing (in this version, Rothbart is a bird – part sleek pterodactyl, part vulture) as if it were a feathery epaulet attached by Velcro. It’s just silly. Even the program notes seem embarrassed by it.

But in the overall scheme of things, these criticisms hardly matter. This is a superb production, aided in no small part by the tasteful and unobtrusive set design by Igor Ivanov.

And as executed by the impeccable Mariinsky corps, the Romantic style is presented like perfectly faceted diamonds. The style is so ingrained that it appears as natural to these dancers as breathing. Arms and hands are perfectly placed. All the time. Legs extend uniformly. All the time. One presumes that even their hearts beat in sync. But there’s no sense of regimentation, of being drilled to the point where the ballerinas look robotic. It may be stylized, but it does not look unnatural. And in those rare split seconds where a head was held at a different angle from others, it just demonstrated that the corps was made of individual humans rather than programmed machines.

The lead performances of Odette/Odile were both dazzling.

On 15th, Viktoria Tereshkina appeared as technically outstanding as a ballerina dancing “Swan Lake” can be. While there were minor imperfections which stood out when they occurred because everything else was flawless, they were so rare, and so insignificant in the overall scheme of things, that they’re easily overlooked. Every foot placement, every port de bras, every turn – which were miracles themselves for their placement, alignment (assisted or unassisted), and above all for their rotational speed), was on the mark. The best Odette I’ve ever seen was Natalia Makarova. Their bodies are similar, and technically, watching Ms. Tereshkina, I saw Makarova.

But ballet theater in general, and Odette/Odile in particular, requires something more than technique – it requires a sense that the character portrayed is more than only a compilation of perfectly executed steps. With Ms. Tereshkina I felt little. Her Odette was completely devoid of any level of passion or pathos – granted that the absence of mime in this version limits the ballerina’s ability to convey emotion. And granted also that the perceived level of emotion can be a product of coaching, and that it also can be overdone to the point where the ballerina is hitting the audience over the head with an anvil. Too much pathos is simply pathetic; a balance is required. Finally, there’s also a much more subjective ‘like’ (‘warmth’) factor. Some dancers, by the nature of their stage personalities, are able to make an audience feel what they’re feeling; they pierce the proscenium, and bring an audience in. In this respect, and as technically precise as she was, Ms. Tereshkina was no Makarova. She was emotionally flat, and cold as ice. In the White Acts, her face was blank and stoic throughout, as if she was sucking a lemon. She was showing no feeling, and consequently, as brilliant as her dancing was, I felt nothing.

Act II was yet more unfortunate. For me, the role of Odile is critical; if it doesn’t work, no matter how great the portrayal of Odette may be, the ballet as a whole doesn’t work. And in order for the role of Odile to work, the sexual component must be paramount: she has to convincingly seduce Siegfried. Here, Ms. Tereshkina smiled, and sneered, and danced the choreography superbly. But the irresistible force was lacking. Worse, seemingly at every choreographic punctuation point that was the culmination of a flourishing turn, she’d open her mouth in a self-congratulatory small circle, seemingly saying ‘hey handsome and you in the audience, look what I just did’. That’s not seduction.

The Mariinsky Ballet in 'Swan Lake'.  Photo © Jack Vartoogian

The Mariinsky Ballet in ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Jack Vartoogian

On 16th, with Ulyana Lopatkina, there was technical prowess, but there also was character. Whether because of age or stylistic preference, she didn’t move with the same quicksilver flourish that Ms. Tereshkina did. In particular, her turns weren’t as fast and not nearly as spectacular looking. But at times Ms. Tereshkina looked as if she were trying to force as many turns into one musical phrase as she could. Ms. Lopatkina, on the other hand, was languid and liquid, like a slowly uncoiling spring, ending each phrase perfectly. Perhaps a more clear example can be found in the fouettés executed during the Act II coda. Ms. Tereshkina did doubles (or more), moved at a much faster pace, and by my count completed far more than thirty two. But in squeezing out the extra turns, she lost pace with the music, and listed off center. Ms. Lopatkina moved more deliberately, never forcing any extra turn. And when doing the fouettés, she did singles throughout, but executed superbly and never looked like she was ‘pushing’. It may not have looked as exciting, but it was more stylistically pure. And within the confines of this choreography, she looked passionate. She wasn’t stoic; she nuzzled, gazed hopefully and lovingly (and, in Act III, forgivingly), and added a shiver of emotion.

And then there was Ms. Lopatkina’s Odile. She didn’t just smile occasionally, she entranced. She didn’t sneer, she enticed. She acted her character with her eyes as well as her lips. And she knew that to be a successful Odile, she needed not only to be irresistible to Siegfried – she had to seduce the audience too. And she did. By making the seduction convincing, and making the contrast between Odette and Odile so clear, Ms. Lopatkina took her performance to a higher and more compelling level.

As their respective Siegfrieds, Vladimir Shklyarov and Yevgeny Ivanchenko both executed their roles well, and their partnering was commendable. There is less room in this production than others for character embellishment for Siegfried, and both dancers responded to events in identical ways. But Mr. Shklyarov has a particularly outstanding ballon, and explosive leaps. Though shorter in stature, he looks more princely, and he carries himself more fluidly, with less upper body stiffness, than Mr. Ivanchenko.

In other featured roles, Vladislav Shumakov and Yaroslav Baybordin were exciting, unflappable Jesters, with Mr. Shumakov being somewhat more hyperactive and intrusive, and Mr. Baybordin somewhat more controlled. But both brought the house down with their acrobatics (which both pushed a bit too far – but in that role doing so is appropriate). As Rothbart, Andrei Yermakov on Thursday and Yuri Smekalov last night were both powerful and vicious.

The pas de trois was danced by Yana Selina, Nadezhda Batoeva, and Filipp Stepin at the opening, and by Yekaterina Ivannikova, Anastasia Nikitina, and Xander Parish on Friday. In this production (at least based on these two performances), the women in the pas de deux have distinct personalities. Ms. Selina and Ms. Ivannikova appear taller, with broad sunshine smiles and broad stage personas to match. Ms. Batoeva and Ms. Nikitina played the shorter, sweeter ballerinas each night – in this version, they’re the ones the Jester (and probably many in the audience) has a crush on. Both are interesting dancers to watch. Ms. Batoeva came across as exceptionally engaging. Unfortunately, Ms. Nikitina, who was dancing with particular intensity and luminescence, took a hard fall midway through the pas de trois, quickly removed herself from the stage and did not return (the pas de trois was completed as a pas de deux, and Ms. Ivannikova, Mr. Parish and Mr. Baybordin covered so skillfully that her absence did not impact the rest of the ballet).

Of the character dances, I found the performances of Anna Lavrinenko and Alexey Nedviga in the Neapolitan Dance, and Olga Belik and Boris Zhurilov in the Hungarian Dance, to be particularly commendable. Anastasia Asaben, Anastasia Mikhelkina, Anastasia Sogrina, and Oxana Marchuk where the flawless Cygnets.

Finally, what made the performance perhaps as much as the dancing was the conducting by Valery Gergiev, artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, and the performance by the Mariinsky Orchestra. Mr. Gergiev led the dancers appropriately, and the orchestra played with the same level of precision that marked the dancing on stage.