Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of The Royal Ballet's production of "Swan Lake," published by EDGE publications

Only rarely in even the longest careers, does the critic face the problem of how to write a review of something that so closely approaches perfection. Here I’m not just referring to one element in The Royal Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake at the Mann Center on Friday night. The sheer grandeur of the sets and costumes, the flawless dancing of the corps de ballet, and the enrapturing portrayal of Odette/Odile by Marianela Nunez combined with Tchaikovsky’s thematically powerful music, Swan Lake’s devastatingly tragic tale, and the unmatched beauty and elegance of Marius Petipa’s and Lev Ivanov’s choreography to not only bring a fairy tale to life, but to make reality truly falter in comparison.

Swan Lake tells the folk tale of the princess Odette (Nunez), turned into a swan by the evil magician Rothbart (Christopher Saunders), only able to return to human form with a vow of true love. While hunting in the woods, Prince Siegfried (Rupert Pennefather) sees her transform from swan to princess, and pledges his life to her. Returning home, he shuns the festivities in which his mother demands that he choose a bride, until a disguised Rothbart arrives with his daughter Odile, a black swan made to look like Odette (and danced by the same ballerina). Captivated, Siegfried swears his love to Odile, breaking his vow, and dooming Odette to remain as a swan forever.

From the multiple sets to the hundreds of richly detailed costumes for the ballerinas especially, this production gave the word "grandeur" new meaning. Act I opened upon fifteen-foot high wrought gold-plated gates in a fence surrounding a fairgrounds. Act II created a canopy-covered expanse in the woods near an ice-encrusted chapel, which moved deeper in Act IV to a dark and cold lake. Act III presented the real spectacle, a golden palace interior, replete with balconies affixed to long stairs leading down to the stage. While simple orange or green frocks adorned the peasants, and the potential brides danced in classic cream-colored gowns, the costumes culminated in the first appearance of Siegfried’s mother, who stepped out of a Winterhalter portrait to take her place in this production.

Following the original choreography of Petipa and Ivanov (right down to the stools and Maypole), this ballet is a virtuoso’s dream that requires flawless execution and precision of technical mastery, conveyed with grace and majesty. To say that the Royal Ballet-from corps to Nunez achieved all this would err in understatement.

Though I favor later versions of the choreography, and am equally moved by each of the possible endings, from the initial pas de trois, the dancers moved with marvelous execution and grace. Whether in the featured swan numbers, or while performing the entertaining National Dances, the majority of these soloists made it evident that they could find homes as principals elsewhere. And Pennefather danced Siegfried with an ease befitting his Princely role, his long limbs lifting effortlessly off the stage in his few numbers, stunning in Act III when he matched Nunez’ dazzling feat en tourant.

However, Nunez dual roles rightly garnered the evening’s attention from the moment she entered the stage as the swan transformed into a princess, her arms and calves undulating with avian perfection. Her Odette moved like a porcelain figurine always verging on shattering, her Odile burned the stage as a Pandora’s Box brimming with seduction and intrigue, particularly when dashing off Odile’s thirty-two fouettes en tourant with the ease of her smile. Truly magnificent, she gave a pure incarnation of both roles, making her dancing into an epic poem set to the dramatic lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music. The audience called her back on stage for a half dozen curtain calls, and she deserved all of them.

What minor blemishes I could report: the pyrotechnics ending Act III rendered unnecessary by the fiery dancing that preceded them, for instance-detracted nothing from the evening’s performance, and I’m glad of it. Every life deserves to witness at least one moment of perfection, and the ballet, with The Royal Ballet’s perfect figures aligned in dance to this music, story, and choreography, provided one of the few opportunities in life capable of achieving such heights of excellence.

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