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Sara Mearns and Peter Martins’ Swan Lake

By Wendy Perron


Sara Mearns is fabulous as Odette/Odile. She’s an authoritative, fearless Odette and wields her power as Odile. Although there is no fragility in her Odette, vulnerability comes from the gorgeous pliancy of her chest and back. Her Swan Queen, with emphasis on the Queen, was triumphant, worthy of the standing ovations. The orchestra played the Tschaikovsky magnificently (if sometimes too fast). But don’t expect to be moved by a story of undying love.

 

Last night, when Jared Angel first entered as Prince Siegfried, he had a nice, understated elegance. But his lack of energy and emotion prevailed. He is probably a great partner—the best ballerinas get to dance with him. But he’s not much of a dramatic presence. When he’s supposed to be so taken with Odette’s beauty that he puts his hand on his heart, you don’t feel his heart is throbbing. Physically he was there for Mearns’ every balance, off-balance pull, and pirouette. But dramatically he provided nothing.

 

As the Jester, Daniel Ulbricht set the tone: energy, joy, bravura and precision. In this Swan Lake by Peter Martins “after Petipa, Ivanov, and Balanchine,” the Jester carries the burden of virtuosity as well as the narrative burden. It is he who ushers in the villagers in Act I and invites them to dance. It is also he who jokes with Siegfried off to the side, pretending he’s having a heart problem and then—ha ha, only fooling. Twice during the ballet, he yawns and stretches out to take a snooze. Daniel Ulbricht is brilliant at these jokey moments when he’s not jumping with amazingly consistent springiness.

 

Martins’ choreography had growing interest for me: less in the first, village scene and mounting to a great, stormy final scene. All the movements for Mearns were great, possibly because of her own brilliance: She cut the cloth of the choreography on a wild winging bias. I did feel the beginning of Odette’s variation was too busy. She could have luxuriated in those renversés if she didn’t have to throw in so many other steps.

 

The absolute nirvana point in the dancing for me was in the fourth act when Odette is on the floor, in Dying Swan position, weeping—the suppleness of Mearns' spine, chest, head, and arms all going toward a single emotion. Such luscious sorrow!

 

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this Swan Lake, so it was like seeing it anew. Here are some things I noticed:

 

• Per Kirkeby’s bold designs certainly mark this as a very different Swan Lake, but they take some getting used to. The painted drips and tangles, plus the square shapes rather than arched or circular, make an aggressive modernist statement. The first backdrop looks like a bombed out castle, with stumps of colonnades (convenient for sitting and resting) rather than tall columns. But the worst is the color choices for the villagers. The loud forest green and fire engine red seem like random decisions rather than part of an envisioned palette. The swan costumes on the other hand, are nice. Knee-length white tutus that are a little longer in the back lend a bit of grace.

 

• The “Pas de Quatre” with Joaquin de Luz (his rock-solid landings from double tours were cause for cheering) passed through an Apollo moment when he pulls the three women along. I wonder if that was part of Balanchine’s choreography for Swan Lake that Martins was quoting, or a way for Martins to slip in a three-second homage to Balanchine.

 

• The endings of both the white and black pas de deux are weird musically. Odette’s adagio ends in some suddenly boisterous music that was unfamiliar to me. It doesn’t let Odette and Siegfried finish their tragedy-drenched meeting in peace. Plus it steals the thunder of the Four Small Swans, who normally get to lighten the mood with their unison prancing. And the Black Swan duet ends with the entire court dancing to the music for the Mazurka divertissement. Personally I don’t think it works—maybe because I was in the Mazurka as a teenager—but also because it delays the big reveal when Siegfried learns he went crazy for the wrong girl.

 

• Martins has added a “Russian” dance, which seemed more Arabian to me and used highly-strung string music that sounded more like swan music. No matter, because Janie Taylor was her glamorous, languid self (partnered by an awkward-looking Amar Ramasar, stepping in for Sebastian Marcovici). Even though Taylor almost took a fall, her mesmerizing sensuality was a highlight.

 

Other performers who stood out:

• As one of 16 village children, the littlest boy, with a bowl of white-blond hair, danced with a crazy fierce pride. Maximilian Brooking Landegger is 8 1/2 but commands the energy of a pro.

• Antonio Carmena made a forceful, gallant Benno. If he had played Siegfried, there might have been some interpersonal sparks onstage. 

• One of the six Princesses caught my eye: Corps member Amanda Hankes in a pale choral dress. Long and lofty and elegant and open, she didn’t push hard like some of the soloists. Just naturally elegant in a spare way.

• It was nice to see Albert Evans, now retired, in the role of Von Rotbart. However, I don’t think he has a mean bone in his body; he added more a sense of amusement than terror or tyranny. On twitter there’s been some comments like, Why are the evil characters always played by dancers of color? I would feel better about seeing Evans in this role if I’d seen him do the Prince a few years back. But I don’t think he ever got to play the prince in any ballet at NYCB. If I’m wrong, please correct me.

 

All performances of NYCB’s Swan Lake are nearly sold out, and one was added due to popular demand. Call it the Black Swan effect. I gotta admit, for a split second during the third act, I thought I was seeing Natalie Portman. And I know Mearns looks nothing like Portman—or like Sarah Lane, the real dancer who doubled for Portman. (See our interview with Lane here.) But that movie and its promo are now part of our culture; I guess it just subliminally slipped into my brain. I hope it makes more people curious about ballet.

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