Sara Mearns' Swan Queen

Tonight I attended NYCB's sold-out "extra" performance of Swan Lake. There had been 8 planned performances, but they sold out so quickly that Peter Martins decided to program an extra performance tonight, and I quickly snatched a ticket. I am glad I went too because it's not often that I descend into gushy superlatives when describing a performance, but I'll have to do so for Sara Mearns' Odette/Odile. So here goes: mesmerizing. Gorgeous. Transcendent. Unforgettable.

The evening got off to an unpromising start. I have no idea why Peter Martins remains so loyal to the designer Per Kirkeby, who designed one of the ugliest decors I have ever seen in any production, and that includes all the so-called "Eurotrash" regie opera productions. Kirkeby loves pumpkin-orange and lime green. In both "color" acts orange and bright green are the main colors of the corps de ballet costumes. He's fond of cut-outs in costumes as well, for no apparent reason. He also apparently likes mud-brown (the color of the backdrops). The clash of colors is absolutely horrific. It's not often that I can't look onstage because it is so visually ugly, but Kirkeby has managed to do just that for Act One of Martins' Swan Lake. What's worse, Kirkeby's designs create no sense of a "court" for Prince Siegfried, but some abstract rustic in-the-middle-of-nowhere picnic that gives us no idea of Siegfried's side of the story. Martins seems determined to make Act 1 a show-case for abstract dance. That really doesn't work when Swan Lake by design has Act One as the "character" act and Act Two as the greatest act of "abstract dance" ever choreographed.

The dancing was also off-point. One of the corps de ballet girls took a nasty spill at the very start of the Waltz, and the rest of the corps seemed rattled for the rest of the dance. Jared Angle (Siegfried) is one of those danseurs Peter Martins seems to love -- self-effacing, solid, reliable, and ... not much else. This could be seen by the way this Siegfried shuffled onstage dully with his buddies. An Angel Corella or Marcelo Gomes know how to make an entrance, even in a cavalier role like Siegfried. They don't just shuffle onstage with their buddies. To spice things up maybe, Martins decided to have a Jester (Daniel Ulbricht), who did the best he could but ... I always find the Jester a terminally irritating role in any production of Swan Lake. The pas de trois had a last-minute substitution in Anthony Hurley as Benno. Hurley made the classic mistake of remembering to punch out all the big steps, while forgetting, it seems, the small connecting steps. So the pas de trois looked awkward and ungainly when it should theoretically be a seamless flow of allegro dancing. Erica Pereira and Ana Sophia Scheller danced with him and this is another example of how Kirkeby's designs actually undermine the performance -- they were dressed in these tiny, ugly dresses that looked more appropriate for Sunday dance-recital students than NYCB company stars.

But no one goes to Swan Lake to see Act 1. Everyone knows that the show really starts when Odette makes her entrance. Sara Mearns from the moment she grand jeted onstage was that most rare of combinations -- an Odette who both projected the aloofness of someone not quite human, and the passion of a woman trapped in a swan's body. I've mentioned this before on the blog but Mearns doesn't have a typical body for a ballerina. She has broad shoulders, a short neck, and a curvy, somewhat thick torso. Mearns is also an unusual dancer for the NYCB. The repertory of the NYCB (and Martins' personal preference) tends to favor ballerinas who are efficient allegro, terre a terre dancers. My impression of the stereotypical NYCB corps de ballet girl is that they tend to be good technicians but a bit blank and brittle. Mearns is an adagio dancer among a sea of allegros. She is not afraid to move slightly behind the beat of the music, to accentuate a step or show off her luxurious classical line. She stands out among the small, brisk swans as a real Swan Queen -- regal in carriage, a Woman among girls. In both appearance and style she reminds me a lot of Galina Ulanova, who also had a short neck, thick torso, and a uniquely lyrical way of dancing. Mearns has both the Russian back (extremely flexible) and the traditionally "Russian" upper body -- highly expressive. But she also can shock the audience with lightning-fast pique turns and a lower-body strength on pointe associated with the NYCB.

Mearns is like all great performers, in that she's turned her shortcomings into strengths. She might not have the most beautiful body, but whereas with other ballerinas I often find myself staring at their feet, legs, hands, face, whatever, with Mearns I instead was mesmerized by the way she moved. This was not an Odette that traveled slowly from pose to pose, with stops in between. You could take a snapshot of Mearns at any time and it would be gorgeous, but her O/O was vibrant and vital, and it gave energy to the whole performance. I loved the magnificent sweep of her leg in arabesque penchee, her luxuriously curved back, that she could maneuver into all sorts of ways without detracting from her overall plumb line. She could be deliciously subtle too, like when she bourreed around the stage noiselessly, smooth as silk, and her sissones were feather-light. She made wonderful use of her long arms. In the lakeside acts, her arms embraced Siegfried so tightly it was almost frightening, the urgency with which this Odette wants to be freed. And in arabesque, Mearns often slowly moved her arms upwards, as if she were imploring the heavens to answer her prayers. As Odile, Mearns' arms became sinister and spidery, her luxurious cambre's purposefully vulgar, her arabesque stiffer, more at a 90 degree angle, and without the grand sweep. I've rarely seen an O/O willing to make Odile artificially seductive, rather than just purely va-va-voom seductive. Her fouettes traveled downstage, and she didn't throw in doubles or triples, but I admired her tenacity, because the NYCB isn't a company where ballerinas regularly have to practice those 32 fouettes. In the last act, Martins chooses for Rothbart's spell to be broken, but for Odette to leave Siegfried anyway. It's a rather aloof way to end the ballet, but Mearns made her final embrace of Siegfried long and lingering, before she bourreed offstage.

The NYCB corps by now have thankfully figured out that flapping wrists =/= being a swan, so they've simply gone for the most classical arm movements, instead of trying for the Russian look. Nevertheless, their movements still seemed small, a bit like 24 cygnets, rather than 24 swans. I've seen the Mariinsky Ballet do Swan Lake so maybe I'm spoiled by their 24 swans, all moving as one, so majestic, so birdlike, but still, it's great to see how the NYCB has looked in full-length classics like Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. They no longer look like a neoclassical company trying on the wrong outfit.

As for Martins' Swan Lake overall, I scratched my head at some of the choices he decided to make. For the lakeside scenes, he decided to preserve most of the choreography Balanchine made for his one-act Swan Lake. This resulted in some beautiful corps de ballet formations (in this ballet, they really circle around Siegfried and Odette, like a real flock of birds), but also some ungainly cuts to the score that are acceptable in an abridged Swan Lake but not for a full-length ballet. In Act 3, he had a glittery pas de quatre that showed off the kind of allegro dancing in which the NYCB excels (Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Abi Stafford, and Joaquin de Luz danced tonight -- A-list casting), but then had a weird, Sheherazade-like Russian dance in which the lovely Janie Taylor was wearing harem pants and reduced to wiggling her hips. And then he made the oddest choice of all -- after the climactic Black Swan pas de deux, Siegfried pledges his love to Odile, but instead of the usual sinister black puff and cackling center-stage, there's some milling about by the courtiers (dressed like Power Rangers) while the big drama was happening upstage. Odile and Rothbart disappeared from the party and Siegfried was in despair, and the audience barely noticed. And then between the transition from the Black Swan act to the lakeside scene, Martins has the jester poke his head into the court and settle on the bench, for some cheap laughs. I already spoke about Act One, but I noticed that in Act Three and Act Four (the final lakeside scene) Martins is almost embarrassed at actually telling the story. When there is supposed to be the most drama, Martins seems determined to undermine it, to be Seinfeld-like in a "no lessons, no hugging" way. Rothbart expires in a heap of orange for no particular reason, but then Odette is whisked offstage -- why? Martins' choices are not worse than Kevin McKenzie's equally dreadful Swan Lake for the ABT, but they do make it hard for the Odette/Odile to make an emotional impact.

Thankfully, with Sara Mearns in the dual role, audiences were moved anyway. I kept remembering how in the move Black Swan Nina is constantly being told that she needs to find within herself to be both Odette and the Black Swan. But it's true that even the best ballerinas have a hard time inhabiting both Odette and Odile equally. Mearns did just that tonight and more -- she gave Martins' sterile, rather cold Swan Lake a beating heart and soul.


  1. Hi, Ivy,

    Thanks for the fine review of the Mearns Odette/Odile. She seems to grow in artistry with each new roll she dances, a truly amazing dancer. I'm sorry to have missed the performance, but, like you, I find the Martins Swan Lake so ugly, and so choreographically muddled that I don't know if I can ever bring myself to see it again, though it sounds like Mearns makes it worth the effort.


  2. Bill, I think once is enough for me too with the Martins Swan Lake. I wanted to see Sara Mearns because I knew she'd be incredible, but don't know if I want to see the ballet again. Happily I think Sara Mearns is dancing Odette/Odile in other companies now, I'm glad she's getting opportunities to show off her incredible portrayal elsewhere.

    Funny how I quite like the Martins Sleeping Beauty, and can return to it, but Swan Lake? Don't think so.

  3. Martins' Swan Lake is ugly, I agree on that. I hate the designs too.

    But worse is the way Martins has assembled the piece. The sections that he lifted from earlier versions aren't SOOO terrible, but where he takes it on himself to edit and add in material of his own, the results are bad.

    Oddly, the third act seems the clunkiest. It's mostly a parade of divertissments with almost no context. Yeah, I know that's the general pattern for the ballroom scene in almost all Swan Lakes but it usually serves as a dramatic device to heighten tension and cause a dramatic stir when Rothbart and Odile arrive.

    MArtins's silly numbers just follow each other, there's little tension or sense of anticipation. The pressure on Siegfried from the Queen to select a bride is almost unnoticed. Odile and Rothbart almost appear as the next selection in the playbill.

    It's almost amazing how trivial Martins makes this scene. The tacky touch with the jester at the end further confuses what the audience is supposed to feel.

    It's all in all a mess but I have to say I do like the very ending. But is the spell really broken at the end? I don't remember how the synopsis in the program explains it (it was five years ago that I saw it) but it seems to me more that Rothbart has died, but the spell is still in effect and so Odette will remain a swan forever.

  4. Richard, I think the program mentions that since Siegfried has sworn love to Odile, Odette remains a swan, whether Rothbart is alive or dead. I do like how Martins doesn't truncate Act Four, but do think the truncations and rearrangements in the first lakeside scene are disfiguring, and in Act Three the musical arrangements don't work either. I think it's revealing that he cast Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Abi Stafford, and Joaquin de Luz in the Pas de Quatre -- on the one hand it's luxury casting, on the other hand I really feel that Martins places the most importance on the "abstract" dances, and is extremely hesitant about actually telling the story in a straightforward fashion.

  5. Right, the spell is NOT broken. Your remarks that is WAS had me puzzled. Actually, in the versions that have Odette's extended mime, she cautions Siegfried in the first lakeside scene NOT to kill Rothbart as that is not enough to break the spell.

    I don't think Martins' ending is bad at all. I think we can except that kind of ending in the 21st Century. It's the only aspect of his production that I actually felt was effective!

    It's a bit like the very sad ending of Dvorak's Rusalka.

  6. I've grown to like the Martins ending--but the sets are just god-awful. They feel so cynical to me--like someone so determined not to like ballet as to make it ugly.

    I agree with everything you said about Mearns, and I too wrote (and wish) that she could dance with someone more worthy of her dramatic gifts.

  7. Hi, fellow subway blogger - I enjoyed reading this. My review got held up by technical difficulties, but here's the URL. I come to it a little differently as this audience is mostly theater folk, and unlike Peter Martins, I think ballet is more than steps! Anyway, everyone seems to agree that she was great and the production looks awful! I'm very glad to have met you! -- Mary Sheeran

  8. Hi Mary, good review! Next time you go to NYCB and i'm going I will look for you, it will be nice to chat with someone during intermission!


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