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The Russian National Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

Critics look at Swan Lake differently from the rest of the audience. The prospect of viewing this long, demanding classical ballet for the 10th or 50th time can arouse anything from anticipation to dread, but no critic can approach it without some comparative machinery clicking on. No matter how you try to take the performance on its own terms, you can’t erase the layers of images previously imprinted on your memory screen.

We’re not talking photographic authenticity here. Ballets can’t be cloned from one performance to the next, or even preserved more or less intact for 100 years, as music can. Swan Lake has undergone continual cleansing and retrofitting since the canonical 1895 St. Petersburg prototype. Choreographers have tweaked the creation of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to suit changing tastes and politics. Not to mention revisionists who’ve turned it into gender-bending satire (Matthew Bourne), Hollywood kitsch (George Balanchine), and popular parody. All this lurks beneath one’s conscious observation, waiting to be triggered by Tchaikovsky’s luscious score.

Swan Lake is a benchmark piece; ballet companies aspire to meet its challenges. They offer it as a sign of mastery and a token of past glories. What the audience expects is a combination of story, atmosphere, and dancing thrills. There’s the prince yearning for ideal love, the unattainable swan women and their evil captor, Rothbart, and the enchantment-betrayal-retribution journey acted out in the imperial court and the swans’ lakeside landscape. There’s the fairy-tale mystique — the white-clad wraiths hovering on the border between the real world and the supernatural. And there’s the thrilling, palpable presence of star dancers leaping and spinning in virtuosic displays, lovers enacting romantic/erotic duets, and ensemble groups executing flawless designs and fiery ethnic variations.

The Russian National Ballet Theatre of Moscow production, opening a two-month American tour at the Cutler Majestic last Friday, revealed something about the ballet’s reworked choreographic history but left its iconic attributes submerged. This Swan Lake’s creators, after Petipa and Ivanov, included the Soviet choreographers Aleksandr Gorsky and Asaf Messerer, with amendments by the company’s artistic director, Evgeny Amosov, and general manager, Vladimir Moiseev. In the Soviet years, the Russians cleared away a lot of Swan Lake’s old-fashioned mime and concocted a happy ending. Gorsky sought a more naturalistic acting and pictorial style. Later, the milling peasants and nobles were eliminated from the background of the party scenes as a distraction.

This performance made the right superficial motions, but the standard was low, and I looked for explanations. For one thing, the Majestic stage is too small to accommodate a large-scale ballet. At times an ensemble of 24 dancers did squeeze on, but whenever they moved out of their positions, the movement looked cramped and cut off. It didn’t breathe. The soloists seemed to be calculating how many steps or turns they could make without bumping into the scenery. The corps started out looking disciplined, but by the last act they seemed demoralized.

Act one opened with a Jester (Khasan Usmanov) center stage surrounded by a neatly lined-up corps. This character, added and danced by Gorsky circa 1920, launched his bent-legged clowning and high scissors jumps into the middle of the corps’s decorous dances. He held the party scenes together like a jovial ringmaster, but his hyper-bravado was out of scale with the rest of the action.

It was hard to tell much about the quality of the Siegfried (Maxim Romanov) and Odette/Odile (Ekaterina Evseeva), or the lesser soloists, because the choreography was simplified and repetitive as well as spatially constricted. Some of the usual tricks were there but few of the subtle step embellishments. Romanov looked bewildered all the time, a shy person making dutiful princely moves. Evseeva seemed a potentially commanding dancer, both as the unfortunate white swan and as the spiteful alter ego who seduces Siegfried into forgetting his promise.

The ballet company usually performs with taped music, I learned, but for this tour, they’re being accompanied by a Bulgarian ensemble, the Sofia Symphony Orchestra led by Russian conductor Sergey Kondrashev. The orchestra had continual difficulties with intonation, entrances, ensemble, blurring passages. I’m told the players received badly printed scores.

You can sympathize with dancers when they have to perform in these conditions, but you can’t pretend that their approximate musicality, insecure line, and wobbly pointe work don’t make a difference. The soloists insisted on the Russian affectation of taking at least two bows after every important number, whether or not the audience wanted them. Why would they assume they could whip up our excitement when they’d displayed none in their dancing?

Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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