By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST
“You MUST UNDERSTAND that the public hears probably more than [it] sees, and as long as the stage gyrations don’t seriously interfere with the flow of lovely tunes — pretty maiden freaked out by a swan, a virile man undone by him, tricked by society to think black is white and a fadeout of unrequited love, [you can’t go wrong with 'Swan Lake'].”
Todd Bolender, who originated roles in such ground-breaking Balanchine ballets as “Four Temperaments” and “Agon,” wrote those cynical words in a letter to Joel Schnee, in 1975. Bolender, after his retirement from dancing, had directed opera ballet companies in Germany and Turkey, and Schnee was directing a small company in Kassel, Germany. Neither man was particularly fond of the 19th century classical repertoire. In fact, when Bolender took over the artistic directorship of Kansas City Ballet some years later, he programmed Balanchine’s 1951 version of Act II, not the four-act evening length version that Oregon Ballet Theatre is currently performing, and performing very well, in nearly sold-out houses.
At the two performances of Christopher Stowell’s version that I saw over the weekend the “stage gyrations,” far from “interfering with the flow of lovely tunes,” gave them flesh and blood and meaning. OBT’s dancers, with very few exceptions, danced with such musicality, skill and conviction, you could have heard a pinfeather drop on the Keller’s ragged carpet, so enthralled was the 21st century audience by the telling of this rather silly 19th century tale. The triumph onstage gave no hint of the company’s internal turmoil since artistic director Stowell announced his resignation late last year.
On opening night Yuka Iino, who retires from OBT and the stage after her final Odette/Odile next Saturday evening, was beyond enthralling, from her first vulnerable entrance in Act II, to her narcissistically evil portrayal of the “Black” swan in Act III, to her brokenhearted flight from imperfect humanity at the end of Act IV. In the second-act lakeside pas de deux, partnered with immense sensitivity and subtlety by Yang Zou as a rather understated Prince Siegfried, Iino’s liquidly eloquent port de bras was so expressive of her sadness that seemed to originate not from her shoulders, but her heart. The solo for Odette that follows the bouncy cygnets’ dance may be the most challenging in the ballet, filled as it is with unsupported battements and balancés. Iino danced it precisely, eloquently, organically, and, in short, marvelously.
As Odile, the vicious seductress, Iino uses her face like a silent film star, every smile a revelation of pleasure in doing evil. And she takes huge risks on stage, technically, executing double and even triple fouettés during the infamous thirty-two whip turns with which she seals Siegfried’s fate as well as Odette’s. Saturday night, she fell off point after the last fouetté, a price worth paying, it seems to me, for the excitement generated by the flash of the previous thirty-one.
Zou’s exuberant jetés and pirouettes in this pas de deux were a technical match for Iino’s dancing, but I wish he had been as emotionally expressive throughout the ballet as he was in Kent Stowell’s “Orpheus Portrait” last fall.
Sunday’s matinee featured two role debuts, Xuan Cheng’s as Odette/Odile and Brian Simcoe’s as Prince Siegfried. Cheng, who danced the title role in Stowell’s “Ekho” charmingly last fall, and with crazed abandon the random figure in Forsythe’s “The Second Detail” on the same program, had, to coin a phrase, a very hard act to follow. Physically she is the frailest-looking Odette I’ve seen, which is a plus in the lakeside acts, and a minus when she dances Odile in Act III. Like Iino, she made me weep as the Swan Queen; unlike Iino, she neither chilled me nor amused me as Odile. What I loved was the dynamic between her and Simcoe, which first impressed me in “Ekho.” This is a partnership in the making if, God willing, they both continue to dance with OBT.
Given the fact that he grew up and received his early ballet training in Grants Pass, Simcoe is a remarkably regal-looking Siegfried, although he dances with a frankness and ease that is very American. He doesn’t emote, he doesn’t show off, and I thought, given the equally American ending that Stowell gives “Swan Lake” — Siegfried must live with what he has done; he is not permitted to die for love and thus achieve happiness in the afterlife — Simcoe’s interpretation of the role was spot on.
It’s become a cliché that today’s ballet dancers have to be extremely versatile, able to perform well in the classical repertoire (“Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Giselle,” “Nutcracker”), the neo-classical repertoire of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins et al, and in contemporary work ranging from Forsythe to Twyla Tharp and in the case of this company, Nicolo Fonte, James Kudelka, and Trey Mcintyre.
But if they are in a company as small as OBT, they also have to be able to perform a wide variety of roles within a 19th century classic such as “Swan Lake.” Hence, Saturday night’s Prince Siegfried was a courtly Zou; the Sunday matinee’s Baron von Rothbart a bullying Zou, not dancing, but expressing authority with his stride and his stance in the lakeside scenes, with an evilly smirking face in Act III and many flourishes of his cape. Brett Bauer, who will partner Alison Roper as Siegfried next Saturday afternoon, reversed the process from sliminess as von Rothbart on Saturday night to fresh-faced courtier on Sunday afternoon.
On opening night, nearly every principal dancer in the company performed one of the Act III divertissements for the Prince and the Queen (danced with dramatic authority by Damara Bennett, head of OBT’s School, on Sunday afternoon as well). Roper’s Russian dance had the same gravitas and musicality as the one she used to do in Canfield’s “Nutcracker”; Haiyan Wu, who will dance Odette/Odile on Friday night, partnered by Chauncey Parsons, made the same dance look more delicate, but equally lovely.
Parsons, who on opening night danced the male role in the Act 1 “Peasant” pas de trois (a role Stowell performed with San Francisco Ballet) with his customary elegance and panache, also danced the pas de trois in the style of Petipa that Stowell added to the ballroom entertainments. On Sunday, Ye Li did a painfully lackluster job in the “Peasant” pas, his partnering so perfunctory that it’s a wonder Candace Bouchard and Ansa Deguchi, who danced it with him, didn’t drive a point shoe into his foot. He was marginally better in the Spanish divertissement, in which Martina Chavez, Makino Hayashi and the, alas, departing Lucas Threefoot danced with considerable flash and flair.
At both performances the swan corps, an essential part of this ballet, was amazingly good, filling the stage with unison movement that was not, thanks to ballet mistress Lisa Kipp, either robotic or militaristically uniform, but rather functioned like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. In Act II, they looked poignant and sad; in Act IV, agitated and angry and protective. Julia Rowe was pert and fleet as one of the four cygnets and expressive indeed as a corps member on opening night. Ranked as a soloist, she proved herself a true ballerina on opening night in the Peasant Pas de Trois, dancing with an equally speedy Cheng, and in the Neapolitan divert in the third act, partnered by the explosive Javier Ubell. In addition to beautiful feet and limpid technique, Rowe possesses a sparkling stage presence that makes the viewer reluctant to watch anyone else while she’s dancing.
Bouchard, too, danced gorgeously in the Peasant pas de trois at the matinee, as one of the two “big” swans with an increasingly confident Martina Chavez on opening night, and with considerable panache as a leader of the complex Act III Czardas at the matinee. Grace Shibley, whom I’d love to see dance Odette/Odile sooner rather than later, danced one of the big swans, again with Martinez at the matinee.
Kevin Poe, who performs the Tutor in Act I and the Major Domo in Act III, I suspect in all performances, provides true comic relief, enjoying – and how! – the wine at the birthday party, doing a charming little dance with some girls from OBT’s School, moving with the stiffness of the old man that he isn’t. If, as major domo in Act III, he is a bit reminiscent of the one in “Sleeping Beauty” who admits the party-crashing wicked fairy Carabosse, the four gnomes (also kids from the School) who enter with Von Rothbart likewise seem to have wandered in from the wrong story ballet. I’m not any fonder of them than I am of the feathered fans carried by the six bridal candidates in the same act — they look like the ones carried by the debutauntes at a Junior League Ball I had the misfortune to attend (not, I hasten to say, as a debutaunte) in the mid-50s in New York.
On opening night the orchestra seemed thin, a little ragged, but it played better, much, on Sunday afternoon. As usual the players are ill-served by the Keller’s unspeakable sound system, as well as a lack of rehearsals. There are never enough, with or without the dancers; Sunday afternoon’s principals had not had the chance to rehearse with the orchestra at all.
Many bouquets, however, need to be tossed to the back of the Keller at Michael Mazzola for his lighting design, particularly for the lakeside scenes. Dappled and stippled, as the poet said, they romanticized the forest, and suggested the passing of time, enhancing the performance without distracting from it.
“Swan Lake,” this “Swan Lake,” showcases the company Stowell built, on a firm foundation of classical ballet. The most multi-generational audience I’ve seen at any event in Portland in years adores it and OBT’s dancers. Foundations and funders take note. Like a major financial institution of recent memory that received a government bailout, this ballet company is now too big, and too good, to fail.
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake has three performances, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23. Ticket information is here.