Swan Lake? Yes and no.

With its new version told through the experiences of the Prince, Oregon Ballet Theatre's production feels like something else

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s new Swan Lake, with a reconceived libretto by artistic director Kevin Irving, opened at the Keller Auditorium last Saturday night. The house was filled with the usual suspects, as well as a gratifying number of young people, including a few little girls in party dresses.

With choreography by Irving, resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, and OBT School director Anthony Jones (after Petipa/Ivanov); and Filippo Sanjust’s set (to which a smithy has been added by designer Bill Anderson); this production certainly looks like Swan Lake. But it doesn’t quite feel like it.

I would attribute that partly to the incoherent libretto and partly to the crazy quilt of bits and pieces of choreography and characters from other ballets OBT has performed, specifically Act III of Bournonville’s Napoli, Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella, and Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

OBT’s Peter Franc as Prince Siegfried, lakeside with the swans. Photo: Emily Nash

Since its premiere in Moscow in 1877 – and as have many of the ballets in the classical canon – Swan Lake has been adjusted, recast, torqued, tweaked, and completely transformed to reflect the points of view of those who restage it and the cultural environments in which it is performed. There is no set in stone text for Swan Lake, and I am not a Swan Lake fundamentalist — I quite love Matthew Bourne’s version, set in 20th century London, with an all-male swan corps and keyed, sort of, to the British royal family. And in fact, Petipa himself was the first to make major changes in the libretto, in 1895, and that remains the one with which audiences are most familiar.

Officially based on a German fairy tale, the ballet incorporates many Russian folk tales in which swans loom large.  Here’s how it goes: It’s Prince Siegfried’s birthday, and the villagers assemble outside the palace to celebrate the coming of age of their future king. The widowed Queen appears, tells her son it is high time he settled down, and he must choose a  suitable bride at the next  night’s birthday ball.  To soften the bad news she gives him a crossbow so he can go hunt birds, and off  he goes. By the side of a lake he encounters Odette, a beautiful swan-woman (swan by day and a woman by night) and her sister-swans.  Don’t shoot, she tells him in mime; I am in thrall to the evil sorcerer von Rothbart and the only thing that will save me is a vow of true love.

Of course he makes the vow, and even promises to keep it. He invites her to the ball, which she says she can’t attend. The next night Siegfried and his mother greet their guests as they arrive — the princesses who are there as prospective brides (each of whom he later rejects), the foreign dignitaries, and Von Rothbart, disguised as a knight, who enters the ballroom in a puff of smoke with his daughter Odile on his arm.  She looks exactly like Odette.  The princesses waltz, the foreign dignitaries perform their national dances, and then the besotted  Siegfried dances a spectacular pas de deux with Odile, and chooses her as his bride. Von Rothbart laughs an evil laugh, Odile looks wickedly triumphant, Odette’s theme plays, and all hell breaks loose when the feckless Siegfried realizes what he has done.

Kelsie Nobriga (left), Avery Reiners, and Ansa Deguchi. Photo: Yi Yin

Back at the lakeside, Siegfried goes in search of Odette, who informs him more in sorrow than in anger that because he has broken his vow, she is forever a swan.  To escape this fate, she jumps in the lake and drowns.  Siegfried, filled with remorse and grief, follows her, and the lovers reappear in a boat, eternally clasped in each other’s arms.  In the 19th century, this was a happy ending.

In Irving’s libretto Siegfried replaces Odette as the focus of the ballet, and the revised tale is told from his point of view.  There  is no Von Rothbart, but there is an ailing king, who is Siegfried’s father, and it is his magic that transports the prince to the lakeside, where he falls in love with Odette, still in thrall to an evil sorcerer.  Siegfried is the youngest of three brothers, born late in his parents’ marriage, therefore sickly and raised by nursemaids.  He’s been spoiled, the printed libretto in the program and some distracting supertitles tell us. Nevertheless, everyone adores him.

A number of characters have been added, including a blacksmith’s daughter (opening night it was Xuan Cheng), ladies in waiting, a valet for the ailing king, and a village busybody, who enliven the first scene in Bournonville style, and it works quite well.  When the curtain goes up on this scene we see Peter Franc, opening night’s Siegfried, looking every inch the prince, dancing flippantly with the children in the village square. Soon his elderly parents make their entrance. Colby Parsons as the king, who has had a stroke, is almost dragged down the castle steps  by his valet. Martina Chavez as the queen wears the second most elegant hat in ballet (the one Karinska designed for Balanchine’s Western Symphony takes first prize). She breaks the bad news that Siegfried must marry, while the king is settled into a seat.

The centerpiece of this opening scene in most productions  is a pas de trois of aristocrats, which was neatly danced by Avery Reiners, cast as Siegfried’s friend Benno, with Ansa Deguchi and Kelsie Nobriga as ladies of the court.  Siegfried, however, takes no pleasure in watching the dance: We see him, stage left, brooding like the lovesick Romeo. He knows his frolicking days are over. At the end of the scene Siegfried is given the magic crossbow, which transports him to the lakeside and his first meeting with Odette (Cheng on opening night).

In clear mime, Odette tells her story, and Siegfried pledges his love. And the swans dance, twenty-two of them, an impressive number for a company this size, and although their swanlike port de bras looked somewhat ragged on opening night, they gave a reasonable account of Ivanov’s choreography.  I was impressed with Candace Bouchard and Eva Burton’s rendering of the “big swan” variation, for the generosity of their movement and the musical phrasing, but a little disappointed by the lack of snap in the witty “cygnets dance,” a rare example of Tchaikovsky’s musical humor.  I’m sure this weekend’s performances will have acquired some polish.

Intimate moment: Peter Franc and Xuan Cheng. Photo: Randall Milstein

Franc and Cheng then dance one of the loveliest adagios in classical ballet, possibly the most heartrending of them all, with the violin solo that accompanies it played flawlessly by OBT orchestra concertmaster Nelly Kovalev.  They are observed by the king, who is standing stage rear in a golden cape, looking for all the world like Donald Trump.  Why he’s there I can’t imagine, except to make the point for Siegfried that big daddy is watching you.  There is no precedent that I know of for this. Von Rothbart is not on stage for these wonderful set pieces, for the very good reason that the focus of the audience needs to be on the dancers, who in this case were doing their most expressive dancing of the evening, Franc’s partnering tender and considerate, Cheng’s phrasing eloquent and musical. And the OBT orchestra, under the baton of music director Niel DePonte, gave Tchaikovsky’s score full and consistent justice throughout the evening.

Where this Swan Lake begins to fall apart is in the second half, particularly in the ballroom scene, where the rejected princesses waltz unaccountably with the visiting dignitaries, and the music Balanchine used for his Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is substituted for the traditional arrangement for the Black Swan Pas de Deux.

All these dancers enter in traditional fashion, bow to the royal family, and are barely acknowledged by Siegfried, until Odile enters, unescorted, in a puff of smoke, which made me wonder where she came from and how she got there.  But what’s really off-kilter is the lascivious satirizing of the national dances, for which Tchaikovsky wrote some really wonderful music.  I found the Hungarian divertissement particularly unpleasant.  In it, Jones, as the leader of the Czardas, offers Siegfried the very pretty and very young Ruby Mae Lefebvre as a bride, whose own opinion of that idea is expressed in heavy weeping.  The Neapolitan dance, energetically and well done by Thomas Baker and Candace Bouchard, was marred by sexual suggestiveness aimed at the prince.

Spanish is straight out of Cinderella (the audience loved it), with Kipp reprising her role as the wicked stepmother and Makino Hildestad and Emily Parker as the ugly stepsisters, leering at Siegfried and taking pratfalls.  I did enjoy Russian, however, performed with considerable zest by Eva Burton, with Alessandro Angelini, Adam Hartley, Michael Linsmeier, and Brian Simcoe, the last of whom dances Siegfried in some performances.

And then we came to what is usually this act’s piece de la resistance, the Black Swan Pas de Deux, in which Odile’s role has been greatly diminished to emphasize Siegfried’s. Cheng and Franc danced it well, but there wasn’t much in Odile’s choreography that would account for Siegfried being so dazzled, so seduced that he would fail to realize this isn’t the girl of his dreams. Nevertheless, he chooses her as his bride, and his father is so upset by this fecklessness that he dies of a heart attack. Siegfried and everyone else fall apart, and the act ends.

“So much has happened to Siegfried in a day, he doesn’t understand it,” the subtitle tells us before the curtain goes up on Act III, and the second lakeside scene, conjured by his father’s ghost, who is there to greet him, clad in tights and doublet, with a graying wig and beard.  They dance a father/son pas de deux, in which the king informs Siegfried that this is really his parents’ story.  Chavez, in swan costume, enters and dances a slow pas de deux with Parsons; then Cheng and the rest of the swans are onstage and then disappear; and the scene shifts back to the ballroom.

There, Siegfried is crowned, amid anguish and grief, his coronation witnessed by the cast of members of the court, visiting dignitaries, villagers and peasants, including the blacksmith’s daughter, who pulls aside her cloak so he can see a swan feather.  He seizes her hand, the music plays, and they all live happily after, in a finale that is almost identical to The Nutcracker’s, minus the apotheosis of Marie and the Nutcracker Prince returning to reality in the walnut boat.

And that’s why, for me, OBT’s new Swan Lake, and its optimistic ending, doesn’t feel like Swan Lake.  ArtsWatchers may feel differently. There are four more performances, all accompanied by the OBT orchestra.   Go see it for yourself. 

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Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake continues at Keller Auditorium with performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sunday. Ticket and casting information here.

One Response.

  1. George says:

    If Ms. Ullman West was really interested in giving us a history lesson, rather than simply pouting this wasn’t a paint by the numbers Swan Lake, she could could have provided some actual history, which is really quite interesting. Instead of whining “the music Balanchine used for his Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux is substituted for the traditional arrangement for the Black Swan Pas de Deux” she should have noted this music was actually the original music for the Black Swan pas de deux. Hats off to Mr. Irving for bringing it back and putting in in context. Thumbs down to Ms. Ullman West for not having an open mind.

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