Swan Lake is a classic ballet and my taste tends to trend toward the modern so when I arrived at the State Theatre on Saturday night to see City Ballet’s production of Peter Martin’s Swan Lake, I had somewhat low expectations. After the performance, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the beauty and skill on display on the stage.
The first surprise came when the curtain rose to reveal revelers in bright oranges and greens - not at all the colors I thought I’d see. The dancing, though, left a little something to be desired. It seemed like something was out of sync among the dancers - they were not in unison and the dancing actually looked a little sloppy. This was not a sign of things to come, though. The Jester, danced by corps member Troy Schumacher, was energetic and entertaining, though he didn’t have the same kind of air in his jumps as Jonathan Stafford (or Benjamin Millepied, who I’d be wowed by later.) Before going any further, I should probably explain the story of Swan Lake.
We begin on Prince Siegfried’s 21st birthday. His friends and palace guests have gathered to entertain him. (That’s where the jester comes in.) The prince is also entertained by a pas de trois. This trio of dancers was better and more in sync than the larger group at the start of the scene but the girls’ costumes made them look like St Pauli girls. No matter. The celebration continued and everyone leaves having had a good time. The next scene is set at the lake and this is where the prince meets Odette, the swan queen. Odette and the rest of the swans are living under a spell. They become human for only a few hours each night and spend the rest of the time as swans. This spell can be broken only by a man swearing his undying love for Odette. As luck would have it, the prince falls in love with her. But, that’s not the end of the story. The second act begins much like the first - it is a birthday celebration and several divertissements are paraded to entertain the court. The villainous sorcerer Von Rotbart crashes the party and tricks the prince into thinking that his daughter (who’s wearing a disguise) is Odette. The prince proclaims his love for her and then the hoax is revealed. Back at the lake, the prince tries to make amends with the real Odette. She accepts his apology, but since he technically swore his love to two suitors, they cannot be together, the curse is not broken and Odette is doomed to remain a swan forever.
Okay, so, Prince Siegfried has had his birthday entertainment and is off to hunt by the lake where he encounters Odette and the other swans. The swans’ dancing is very beautiful. They flutter their arms and feet and float across the stage. Their formations are full of imagery. One formation in particular even looks like wings. It was a treat watching them float in and out of and around each other, using the full space of the stage. The four small swans’ dance was a lesson in precision. These dancers were fully in sync and moved as one all across the stage. Their footwork was impeccable and coincided with several bars of harp orchestration, which sounded like dancing water.
Dancing the role of Odette was principle dancer Ashley Bouder. As in previous ballets, she was technically good here and nice to watch, but not terribly soulful. I would like to seen a dancer with more expression dance this part as I think it would make the story more compelling. Making up for Bouder’s lack of passion was principle dancer (and sometimes choreographer - I’m seeing his latest world premiere this spring) Benjamin Millepied. Millepied is a fantastic dancer and his jumps were absolutely breathtaking, It looked liked he was jumping ten feet in the air. My only complaint is that I wish I saw him better: He was dressed in blue which, unfortunately, made him blend in with the backdrop and lighting - all of which were in hues of blue. Had he been in a contrasting color, he would have popped as much as his dancing did.
The second act’s divertissements were fun to watch. The real treat was Sterling Hyltin. Once again, she dazzled with both her expert technique and clear joy for dancing. She was part of a pas de quarte and while she was good in the group, she was even better when the stage was all hers. She’s been a principle dancer for only a couple of years and I’m definitely looking forward to watching her career. The act ended back at the lake. Once again Millepied wowed with his flawless performance and Bouder was graceful as she said goodbye to her love, resigning herself to the swan life. The end tableau saw the entire swan corps, headed by Odette, backlit and fluttering in place. It looked like the swans were dancing across the water and was a beautiful sight to end the ballet.