Bolshoi's Swan Lake

There's a saying in ballet that says "Put Swan Lake on the billboard, and they will come." This certainly seemed the case tonight as the Bolshoi Ballet has kicked off its two week stay at the Koch Theater with a week a Swan Lakes. Well ... I think many of the audience were shocked, to say the least, that in the Bolshoi/Grigorovich version, there's no swan and no lake. In fact, audience reaction was muted, and it made for some awkward moments when the audience was dead silent and the dancers decided to come out for another bow.

The usual "vanilla" Swan Lake story goes something like this: Prince Siegfried for his birthday received a bow and arrow and a dictum to marry from his mother. He goes hunting with his friends and is about to shoot at a swan, until he is mesmerized by the swan's beauty. The swan Odette tells Siegfried of her sad tale: she was once human, but turned into a swan thanks to the evil magician Rothbart, and can only regain human form at night. Siegfried pledges his love. But at his birthday party, he's tempted by an Odette lookalike named Odile. She looks exactly like Odette but she's dressed in black. He breaks his pledge to Odette before realizing his mistake. He runs back to the lake, and depending on the version, either the spell is broken by him fighting Rothbart, or Odette and Siegfried break the spell by jumping into the lake and are reunited in heaven.

Grigorovich decided instead to make the whole ballet a vision conjured up by the "Evil Genius." The Evil Genius mirrors Siegfried in all his dancing and actions, and swans appear from behind a curtain. In the third act a sextet of black swans and Odile are also conjured up by the Evil Genius from behind this curtain. This robs the ballet of any meaningful romantic connection between Odette and Siegfried. It's all a vision of the Evil Genius, remember? And in the final act, there's no reconciliation or forgiveness between Odette and Siegfried. The Evil Genius again whisks his swans behind the curtain. The end.

Many iconic moments are gone: Odette doesn't make the flying entrance. Instead, she's already behind the curtain, and has to exit the stage before re-entering. The entrance of the swans is also gone: they're already onstage behind that stupid curtain, then a few minutes later they re-enter with the familiar flying arabesque sequence. This production spends so much time getting people offstage for no reason only to haul them onstage a few seconds later. The only things left marginally intact are the White Swan pas de deux and Odette's variation. The character dances in Act Three are also gone: all the princesses dance on pointe, and so the Spanish/Russian/Polish/Neapolitan dances look exactly the same. Oh, the score is cut and rearranged beyond recognition from the usual Petipa/Ivanov arrangements. Even Tchaikovsky's beautiful apotheosis music is gone -- the ballet instead ends with a replay of the overture. What a mess.

All of this would be more tolerable if the production weren't so darned ugly. The whole thing has a cheesy 1970's decor. The guys at court are in pageboy wigs, and the girls are sporting puke-yellow dresses. The sets have lost whatever sheen they might have once had and just look old and tatty. They even get the swan tutus wrong -- they're in flat pancake tutus without the usual feathers to line the tutu. But I guess in this version it's not even clear they're swans -- they're just random girls the Evil Genius whiffed up behind the magic curtain.

The Bolshoi corps, that can look like balls of manic energy in Don Quixote, were sluggish and often uncoordinated with the orchestra. They might have been cramped by the small Koch theater stage, as I noticed many of them making small adjustments to avoid dancing too close to the edge of the stage or near the wings.

It's a shame, because the dancing by the leads was on a very high level. Anna Nikulina doesn't fit with the current O/O aesthetic (very tall, long-limbed, majestic). She's petite and frail. But her dancing had a wonderful delicacy and lightness. She doesn't go for the big flashy extensions that Svetlana Zakharova would display, but Nikulina's portrayal was warm and human. Her arms were soft and supple. I would love to see what she could do in a more traditional production. I also would love to see her in Giselle.

In the White Swan pas de deux Nikulina didn't slow the action to a crawl -- she actually seemed to move through the music. When Odette does the split jump in Siegfried's arms her spirit seemed to soar. Another highlight was her Odette variation. Her sissones really flew, and she ended the diagonal with a flawless set of piroettes. As Odile she was more kittenish than vampish. Her fouettes started off with an impressive series of doubles, before she sort of ran out of steam. Artem Ovcharenko had beautiful lines and elevation as Siegfried, and partnered Nikulina wonderfully. His cabrioles had wonderful soft landings. Grigorovich's choreography for Siegfried is fussy but Ovcharenko made the most of it. Denis Rodkin performed the "look at ME" Evil Genius choreography with the requisite campiness. In the act one pas de trois Chinara Alizade and Daria Khoklova were both excellent -- fast with the petit batterie. And the Russian companies always find great Jesters -- Denis Medvedev was no exception.

All this wonderful dancing is essentially wasted though. The Bolshoi's Swan Lake is DOA.


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