LA Ballet's Swan Lake: Does the 137-Year Old Work Still Work?

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Photo by Reed Hutchinson

Photo by Reed Hutchinson

My close friend’s brother is an art handler for NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s described to me the great care that is taken to preserve centuries-old works–the many hands artworks must pass through as they are transferred; the expertise and expense that go into restoring them; how moving and hanging requires a balance of delicacy and strength; what security entails. The monetary values of the paintings themselves immediately explain this ceremony, although I do believe that artworks retain cultural value independent of their selling prices at Sotheby’s. A ballet like Swan Lake, which was originally created in the late 19th century to Tchaikovsky’s four-act score, is a matter of similar intricacies and heft. While its value is not as clear cut and certainly less publicized than that of a single painting, those who continue to produce, perform in, and patronize various stagings of Swan Lake collectively defend its preservation.

I attended Los Angeles Ballet’s production Friday evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The company borrowed its palatial sets and wardrobe from the Oregon Ballet; they were originally Pacific Northwest Ballet’s, dating back to 1981. Nevertheless, this particular ballet seems to be a thing of the moment. Other Swan Lakes have made news in recent days and weeks–Graeme Murphy’s version for The Australian Ballet was at the Music Center this month, and the Boston Ballet will open with Mikko Nissinen’s in newly made costumes on the 30th.

The LA Ballet is neither possessed of a dancer who would immortalize their rendition (although principal dancer Kenta Shimizu proved capable in the role of Siegfried), nor do I personally find story ballets particularly interesting; still, they have their place. Instead, the joy of going to the ballet is as much to see and be inspired as it is, just outside Beverly Hills at least, to be seen and prove cultural well-roundedness. “On Friday I went to the ballet,” you can tell your friends. You dress up; it’s a special occasion. The ticket price suggests, but cannot quite sufficiently represent, the ballet’s attuned devotion to every detail, from each corps dancer’s lifelong studies to the haunting score that has surpassed generations to Royce Hall itself, which was constructed in 1929 and housed many performances since.

Meanwhile, the actual story of Swan Lake is baffling. There is a prince who is turning 21 and therefore must marry. His mother gives him a crossbow as a gift. He takes his pals bird hunting, where they come across an enchanted pond. He spots a swan wearing a crown and immediately falls in love with her. In my program, it says that the swan, Odette, actually tells the Prince (Siegfried) that all the swans are maidens who have been put under a spell, but I missed this during the actual performance. So many sweeping gestures! I guess they are all supposed to mean something. What I did notice was the frenetic energy of the dancer in the lead role, aptly representing a bird caught in the wild. And the Prince, who chases and catches and dips and holds his find even as she struggles against him, tries repeatedly to reassure her that he will not eat or taxidermy her. Then Siegfried goes home and his mother continues to push the marriage issue–typical!–presenting him with several lovely candidates in variations of traditional multicultural garb. The ladies dance with a few male escorts. In the first and third acts, a mime helps to narrate what’s going on. The comic relief is welcome, and this jester demonstrated fine technique. But he, like his colleagues in the corps, seemed young and not always entirely sure of his movements, nor of the stage’s dimensions. Either because the company traveled to a total of four venues for their performances, or because of the space-hogging set pieces in Acts I and III, there were narrow misses and even one minor collision involving tour jetes. Bright lighting didn’t help mask these missteps.

Next, the evil, cape-wearing villain responsible for casting the spell over the swan-maidens (Von Rothbart) crashes the party with his daughter Odile in tow, whom he has disguised to look like Odette. She arrives dressed in black and with a feisty new attitude. Her dancing enraptures Siegfried, who is fooled. Odette looks on from outside a window, obviously hurt by his betrayal, urgently flapping her wings. By the time Siegfried realizes what has happened, it is too late–Odette has returned to her pond and bevy of swans. In the fourth act, Siegfried seeks her forgiveness and fights the villain, who dies in the presence of such love. Von Rothbart was well-performed by Zheng Hua Li, another asset to the company who I enjoyed disliking. Unfortunately, the spell does not die with him. Odette remains a swan and Siegfried is left without a bride.

Photo by Reed Hutchinson and Catherine Canner

Photo by Reed Hutchinson and Catherine Canner

Despite its strange storyline, the performance itself was at least engaging, if not revitalizing to the work’s legacy. In Act II, the choreography (which has seen many adaptations since its premiere in 1877; this version was choreographed by Artistic Directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary after Petipa and Ivanov) uncannily mimics swans on a pond–the dancers’ bourrées skim the surface of the floor to look as though they’re floating. The dynamic of their port de bras, resembling wings, conveys the power the beautiful birds have to silence an onlooker or give pause to an accidental trespasser. Perfect lines of dancers crossing each other in repeated arabesques give a similar territorial feel, while the familiar white tutus become birdlike bottoms. Here, the corps reigned stoically. Audience members in the know look for two things–one is how the principal ballerina distinguishes her Odette from her Odile. In this version, Allyssa Bross’ Odette was elegant but powerful in her emotion and exact in her movements, whereas her Odile seemed sharp and cunning, if not a little over-performed. She might have made less eye contact with us, the audience, and more with her supposed lover, to minimize the Hollywoodification of it all. Second is how many of the famous 32 fouettes she performs. Bross performed only 25, with 7 double pirouettes to make up the difference.

Voices in my head searched for a feminist reading of the swan who so desperately hopes to make her way out of captivity but cannot; or, at the very least, a timelessness, which I did find in both the score and the arresting depiction of the swans. The story is somewhat ridiculous, a little hard to follow, and arguably terribly politically incorrect–as are 19th century ballets in general, by some readings. But, we do not throw away great paintings simply because they reveal uncomfortable truths about society, or lack relevance–PC and art have never been on exactly friendly terms. Works are preserved, to great lengths by those who do the preserving, when some piece of them stirs something up in their viewers, regardless of day and age. With ballet the work is actually embodied, making it more than mere relic of the past, and instead, a continued commitment to it. Each re-staging is an opportunity to prove why it’s still so valuable; the LA Ballet needs more maturity and oomph if it wants to be remembered in the long line of Swan Lakes.

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