Heart untouched; soul unshaken

Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, August 28.

KEVIN McKenzie’s version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is a medieval fairy tale of transformation. A woman is turned into a swan. An evil lake-dwelling sorcerer becomes a devastatingly attractive nobleman in the blink of an eye. Two lovers die by drowning but moments later, in an apotheosis, suffuse the air with their benevolence.

These things are important elements, but are a kind of outer skin. They tell us what is happening, but not why. What of the underlying purpose – the desperate love and profound act of forgiveness that bring Swan Lake into the human realm, give it immediacy and make it so moving? They are not to be encountered here, or at least not at ABT’s opening night performance, which was filled with admirable dancing but empty of emotional resonance.

Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake
Hee Seo in American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

It is possible things may have been different if the originally announced opening night Prince Siegfried, David Hallberg, had not had to withdraw due to injury. Perhaps he draws more from the reticent Hee Seo than did his replacement, Cory Stearns, on the evening of ABT’s Australian premiere. Stearns is a fine classicist with aristocratic lineaments and the plushest of plies, but he and Seo lack chemistry. The approaches each took didn’t catch fire when put together.

Stearns conveyed ennui rather than melancholy and superciliousness rather than noblesse oblige, qualities that did not entirely recommend him, even though his handsome carriage, light landings and princely line made a strong impression. Seo’s theatrically muted Odette was beautifully shaped in the physical sense but there was little idea of what she wanted, or did not. After meeting Siegfried, of whom she seemed not terribly afraid, Seo rarely looked at him, rather gazing down demurely or looking up to the heavens piously. Her eyes and face were not expressive and with her feelings a closed book, the loveliness of her shapes and exquisite articulation went for far less than they might and a couple of fumbles acquired more prominence than they should have.

It was therefore not entirely surprising in the third act to find Odette’s doppelganger Odile short on charisma. Seo wore a black tutu and a wide smile but the spark stopped there. There were no fireworks to be had, just a dutiful set of unadorned fouettes.

McKenzie opens the ballet with a prologue showing Odette’s capture by Von Rothbart. In Zack Brown’s otherwise unimpeachable designs, the sorceror looks like the Incredible Hulk (poor Roman Zhurbin on opening night) but tricks Odette by assuming exceptionally alluring human form (in this guise he was played by lucky Alexandre Hammoudi). The latter’s appearance in Act III is thus signaled. He is the super-confident, ultra-seductive gatecrasher who will bring disaster in the form of Odile. It’s a gift of a part as Von Rothbart sexily reels in all the princesses who are being paraded for Siegfried’s approval and makes the Queen Mother not a little hot and bothered. It probably shouldn’t have been the highlight of the evening, but it was.

Hammoudi, a soloist, smouldered enjoyably although he doesn’t quite have the impact of principal Marcelo Gomes in the role (could anyone?). Gomes is in Brisbane but not cast in Swan Lake it would appear. Brisbane has been denied a great pleasure. (Gomes is scheduled to appear in Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Three Masterpieces triple bill and in Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free at Saturday’s matinee.)

The third act of Swan Lake slides into a brutally truncated fourth act – a decision that unbalances the ballet badly, giving more weight to the first and third acts set at court than to the white second and fourth acts at the lake. We see something of the swans’ anguish at their queen’s betrayal but the promise of tragedy explored and amplified is only minimally delivered. Instead the action moves briskly to Odette’s death leap and then Siegfried’s (Stearns went for broke here), followed by dawn, Von Rothbart’s broken spell, and Odette and Siegfried as lovers forever in the afterlife. Curtain. Heart untouched; soul unshaken.

It was a treat to see ABT’s music director Ormsby Wilkins authoritatively at the helm of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in what was something of a homecoming for the Sydney-born conductor. He will lead other performances in this short season, in which I hope different partnerships I am to see – Misty Copeland with Hammoudi, Gillian Murphy with James Whiteside and Paloma Herrera with Stearns – offer greater passion and nourishment.

Swan Lake ends Thursday. Three Masterpieces, ballets by Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky and Jerome Robbins has four performances from Friday.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 1.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Lee Christofis says:

    Deborah, I’m not at all surprised by your comments. I studied this ballet closely online and looked at sections twice to make sure that I’d not fallen asleep and missed things. I agree that the fourth act feels summarily dismissed; it’s so truncated you might ask why not finish at the end of act 3, with Siegfried rushing to his doom and his mother to her total collapse? I also know what you mean when you comment about Hallberg’s potential to draw more from Hee Seo; surely that is a directorial question. Same for Cory Stearns, whom I saw do a very elegant Albrecht in June, Alistair Macauly in the New York Times suggested his use his eyes more, doing exercises Ashton used to give the Royal Ballet dancers.

    As for weird design decisions, I find this a lot in North American ballets I’ve seen over the years. Closer to home, for instance, I was surprised to see in Stanton Welch’s Houston ‘Bayadere the powerful rajah, Gamzatti’s father, dressed in a rather clumsy fashion, which matched the almost buffoon characterisation foisted on this usually elegant, imposing figure. The chief household servant was a buffoon indeed, and added not an ounce of anything to the show. In fact he was truly distracting and a bit insulting to Petipa I think. And you’ll remember the Rothbart bright red hair in Stephen Baynes’s ‘Swan Lake’ too. Are these rushes to the designers’ brains not the subject of directorial excision? Or a directed re-design?

    It strikes me that tinkering with the classic is now, more than ever, a danger zone. If it’s not done with the utmost seriousness and integrity – or if companies are not prepared to pay for R&D by the right kinds of people – it should be avoided. I’d more happily sit through the 1950s Borovansky ‘Swan Lake’ any day. At least there was a lot of intelligent dancing, and enough dramaturgical detail to help one understand every character’s motivation and behaviour. And the fourth act, using all the original music, was a real drama with a great apotheosis to bring tears to your eyes. Good luck with the subsequent casts.

    One last question for you. The producers of this tour know their stuff, but I’m surprised by their choice, especially as they have built a very good following with POB, Hamburg Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet and rare phenomena such as Bright Stream, which went down a treat! Was this a cynical choice, do you think, by the presenter? You know the old cliche – put on any Swan Lake and you’ll fill the house. Brisbane audiences have been treated badly in the past and consequently stayed away in droves from Australian companies until it suited them to go back. So why take the risk with this unsatisfying production?

    1. Lee, I think the choice of Swan Lake was probably due to the thinking that American Ballet Theatre isn’t as potent a name in Brisbane as the Bolshoi, or as glamorous a one as Paris Opera Ballet, so Swan Lake there as insurance. And I assume Kevin McKenzie would have had a lot of input into the programming; not just the producers. ABT does Swan Lake every year, I think, so it would be easy to stage. I thought it would have been lovely and surprising to get Sylvia, but I imagine that would be a hard sell. I’m looking forward to the ABT triple bill very much, but if you look at the QPAC ticket site there are plenty of tickets available. Also not the easiest of sells, but a terrific program. We mustn’t forget that the MacMillan R&J was just on, so that has to be put into the mix of repertoire choice. What would get people to pay for another big night at the ballet? The answer apparently was thought to be Swan Lake. (And it seems to have sold ok – I’ve been checking the website.) But I agree with you – a production of Swan Lake that isn’t up there with the greats, well, it’s hard to get super excited. Particularly with the performances I saw on opening night. I am not sure why Gillian Murphy wasn’t first cast – last-minute NZ duties perhaps?? Not sure. She’s got the kind of glamour needed (I’m seeing her on Wednesday night). Obviously I’m also looking forward to seeing Misty Copeland’s debut on Wednesday afternoon. I’ll let you know how it all goes!

  2. Marcelo Gomes is dancing in the Bourne Swan Lake in Japan, which opens on 6 September. Possibly he chose not to dance ABT’s because he’s learning such a different one?

    1. Maybe – but it’s a very different role, and Von R is here essentially just one flashy variation. But perhaps he’s come later to Brisbane because of his rehearsal schedule and is just staying a couple of days. That would make sense.

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