A Review of Swan Lake- St. Louis Ballet- 2012
Swan Lake is the ballet that made me decide at eight years old, that I wanted to be serious about dance. I saw a production here in St. Louis with Rosanna Ruffo, who would be a continuous teacher of mine during summers and later my college professor, dancing excerpts as Odette, the White Swan, and that was it. Something about the inhuman beauty of the physical movement caging very real human emotion just seemed right to me. It was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to love at first sight.
St. Louis Ballet’s production of Swan Lake on Sunday April 29 opened the ballet with a nice back story between younger versions of the Prince and Odette and then skipped a lot of the superfluous pantomime, allowing just enough time to introduce the Queen and Prince before the dancers went straight into what the St. Louis Ballet Company does best- the actual dancing . I must admit that I missed the Pas de Trois as I particularly love the music and would have liked to see more of these dancers in soloist roles but it doesn’t do anything for the story line and in the presence of an already long ballet, I suppose something has to go. The technique of the dancers was quite stunning, particularly in the more allegro moments between the Castle Ladies and Gentlemen. Across the board, the women have gorgeous lines, extension, and attention to the presentation of their legs and feet. The partnering from the men was strong, especially as the group of couples approached partnered en face pirouettes which were nicely together and clean. I will say that I did not care for the frothy white dresses of the castle ladies which looked to me, too much like nightgowns, or of the red velvet jackets that three of the gentlemen wore which looked like a ballet version of Hugh Hefner’s famous smoking jacket but I can easily ignore that when there are beautiful legs and feet to watch. These are Texas Ballet Theatre’s costumes and sets anyways, and not chosen by St. Louis Ballet. Overall, Act one scene one did a nice job of setting a colorful, cheerful stage contrasted by the transition into scene two at the lake, with brilliant lighting from Don Guy.
The lake scene in act one is my favorite part of the whole ballet; it has the iconic little swans, the incredible choreography of the swan corps entrance and accompanying music, and the pas de deux. The entire act was gorgeous. The four lead swans were tirelessly clean and musical. I did notice a little hiccup near the end of the little swans where one swan was on the wrong foot for an instant, but that’s live theatre. Octavio Nieto brought a spell-binding presence as the evil Rothbart. I’ve seen version in which Rothbart dances more, but I liked how in this version, he seemed more the unseen puppeteer causing the enslavement and dancing of the many swan maidens. Appropriately, this was the scene where Stephen Lawrence, as Prince Siegfried came to life. Whereas in act one scene one, he danced cleanly but as if he felt a disconnect from those around him, it was clear with his excellent use of dynamic and performance that the more enamored he became with Odette, the more alive he became- and the more enjoyable and sympathetic a character he grew to be (though I may be biased since I myself found passion in life through a conceptual budding love affair with the white swan). There is no hiding anything for the corps de ballet with classical white tutus and the clear symmetry in the blocking. Individually and as a flock, the swans must be perfect and in place, and they were. I’ve never seen a corps use so much attack in the templs leve sauté entrance sequence. I liked not only their stretched knees and pointed feet, but the display of power as they travelled in contrast with much of the choreography where they are stationary and appear to be hovering on the surface of the water, held captive by Rothbart’s dominance. When a group of dancers move exactly together in clean lines, it makes it easier to spot the one dancer with a turned in leg or flexed foot. Time and space are the clarity for seeing right and wrong, and through the end of act four, the Swans were independently and collectively lovely.
Act three brought a return of color and vibrancy with the ball scene and the varied divertissement. The Spanish couples were bright in movement and picturesque in poses. There were a few discrepancies in timing, but there were only two couples so it is possible that it was intended as a canon. The czardas was delightful in the full use of the stage and the Italian dancers were charming and animated in incredibly difficult choreography. The turns near the end of the variation were notably challenging yet well-executed. Worthy of special mention were Kaori Higashiyama and Alberto Rodriquez as the Russians who were not only technically flawless never a missed moment of performance in the finish, preparation, and execution of each step. They were truly magnetic. The costumes for these two were a bit strange; they looked like Disney’s Aladdin and Pricesss Jasmin and you’d think it would be a bit too cold in Russia for a crop top. I haven’t heard of balmy climates in Siberia but maybe we can blame global warming. The coda was spectacular across the board, particularly with a remarkable jete en ménage from Justin Hogan as the lead Italian, and Lawrence’s immaculate a la second turns.I suppose in this story, if love is blind and we’re allowed to accept the premise that a man can fall in love with a bird (I’m not judging, I did too) than trickery must be color-blind, or should I say neutral-shade blind as the love stricken-Prince is duped into promising to marry the Black Swan, Odile, mistaking her for his true love, Odette. The roles of Odette and Odile are sometimes performed by one ballerina, adding the extra challenge of versatility and extreme stamina. As much as I have always loved the role of Odette, I have never wanted to be Odile. Thirty-two fouettes is too many for me, no thank you. Luckily, this wasn’t the case for Sunday’s Odile, Kate Rouzer, who was up to every challenge of the choreography. Most impressive was the way she shined through the technical demands, adding a sensual almost-serpentine quality of movement and performance. This was not only evident in her port de bras but even in the approach to jump, lifts, and the unfolding of the leg. In the midst of wildly challenging choreography, she found the artistry and control to give pause and let the audience notice tiny embellishments such a subtle hand movement. Jumps seemed to come out of nowhere, appropriately matching the element of mystery and surprise of the character Because Odile is on the side of evil, it could potentially make sense that her movement quality would always be sharp (with the exception of the rare moments when she is emulating Odette to trick Siegfried). Rouzer added a complexity and maturity to the role by giving it a new dimension and was all the more mesmerizing for it.
Swan Lake is in its many versions, a love story at heart, with either a tragic or happily-ever-after resolution. There are versions where the spell is broken and all is well, or where they both die in various forms of murder-suicide. St. Louis Ballet presented a twist I’ve never seen before, with Odette finding the inner strength to overpower Rothbart and save Prince Siegfried. I admit to being a sucker for a strong female heroine but I particularly loved this ending from choreography to lighting to staging. It was visually stunning, emotionally riveting, and even intellectually provoking. I found myself thinking of how Swan Lake is not only a love story, but one of submission versus ownership of the self, of how love gives birth to strength of conviction. Looking around the packed audience, people of all ages, I’m sure that many enjoyed the performance for simply the entertainment; the costumes, music, dancing, and were carried away by the fantasty of it. What I love about a well presented ballet such as Swan Lake is the opportunity to live universal ideas, challenges, conditions such as oppression or love or being tricked through the fantasy, through a story and to have an emotional reaction.Ballet can be a way in to real issues via poetic access.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Pam Swaney in her performance as Odette. I only have one word; exquisite. She made me fall in love with her performance, the ballet, and the art form all over again.