Winter Season Diaries: Swan Heaven, Sunday Un-funday

The flock of black swans, photo @ Paul Kolnik
I've seen lots of Swan Lakes in my balletomane life. And to be honest, I've disliked or felt indifferent to almost all of them. A long time ago Nina Ananiashvilli impressed me with her boneless arms and old-style Bolshoi acting. Mariinsky swans are hard to beat -- I loved Viktoria Tereshkina's strength and chutzpah. Uliana Lopatkina's Odette/Odile was a master class of classicism, and she also had an inner radiance and spirituality that was heartbreaking. But really, that's ... it?

Well tonight I was transported to Swan Heaven again, and in the unlikeliest form: petite, slight Sterling Hyltin in Balanchine's one-act version of the ballet. I've never taken Balanchine's abridged Swan Lake seriously -- sometimes I think he took an orchestral suite and had no idea what to do with it. He added a coda to the pas de deux. He added variations. He deleted variations. He changed the setting to some sort of arctic winter wonderland replete with icebergs. The best part of his Swan Lake is unsurprisingly his choreography for the corps -- he has them swarm as an a scary flock in their black feathery costumes. They are not the mournful swans of most "after Petipa/Ivanov" versions. They're wild birds. But his changes to the white swan adagio (a peppy coda) and Odette's variations are unimpressive, the solo for Siegfried is unnecessary, and he unfortunately deleted the dance of the cygnets in one of his many revisions. One thing: nice costumes, especially for the hunters.

It takes a special ballerina to make Balanchine's Swan Lake not just a wintry abstraction. Last week I saw Sara Mearns give one of those performances that you'll really love if you are a Sara Mearns fan. She was majestic, she was dramatic. But as for me, I wanted more refinement in the upper body, more connection with the music, and an actual Odette soul instead of overwrought facial expressions. Sara's lack of any port de bras and her hunched shoulder posture has only gotten worse with time.

Hyltin's Odette, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Sterling Hyltin doesn't exude majesty -- she's too small for that. In fact, when she first came onstage she looked more sparrow then swan. But then she danced. And wow. Her approach was not the usual "Balanchine" way of fast footwork and aggressive attacks. Those slight arms were boneless -- they fluttered mournfully along with the music. Her back was "Russian" in its flexibility. Her many deep, pliant backbends gave Balanchine's cold abstraction a startling tenderness. Her entrechats/passés in the coda were lightning fast and timed so perfectly with the music. But most of all, she made you believe that this was Odette. She put the tragedy of Odette back in Balanchine's abstraction. Her pas de deux with Siegfried (the always sensitive Tyler Angle) was startling in its intimacy, especially the way her face would gently graze his cheek in one of her many arabesque pencheés. When at the end of the ballet she bourreéd back into Rothbart's kingdom one felt loss and heartbreak. It was a treasurable performance. I never predicted that Sterling Hyltin would be the ballerina to put the love, soul and poetry back into Swan Lake.

In fact, tonight had a series of outstanding performances from unexpected quarters. Megan Fairchild was her usual excellent self in Allegro Brillante. She doesn't have the dynamic movement of Tiler Peck but one can't fault her accuracy and precision. A bigger surprise was her partner Amar Ramasar. He can struggle with posture in classical roles but not tonight. Very classical, clean beats and no hunched shoulders. The 8 corps members were as usual excellent.

Sean Suozzi, Melancholic, photo @ Paul Kolnik

In Four Temperaments, Sean Suozzi, a dancer that has barely registered in all the years I've seen him, kicked ass with his Melancholic variation. Whoever knew he had such a flexible back and such a sense of when to contort his body before falling to the floor? Every time he'd twist, hang in the air for a little bit before making that dramatic drop. The loud thud added a thrill -- you wondered if he'd blown out his back. Anthony Huxley (whom I saw last week) was more refined, but Suozzi more exciting. Another standout was Megan LeCrone and Aaron Sanz in the Third Theme. I love Ashley Bouder in nearly everything but I prefer a taller, leggier girl for Choleric. Those aggressive kicks just look more menacing with more leg. But still, Four Temperaments is a CB classic that is consistently well-maintained.

Tonight's performance offset the disappointment of the Sunday matinee, which was supposed to have been an exciting afternoon of debuts. It's a City Ballet tradition to sometimes give huge parts to corps members. And with most of those choices, the dancers rise to the occasion and then some. I'm remembering Harrison Ball's stunning debut as Puck, or Indiana Woodward's last minute sub in La Sylphide that was sensitive, soulful and charming. These debuts are the stuff City Ballet fans live on -- successful debuts are an instant "star is born" moment.

Alas, Sunday was not the day for those moments. Isabella LaFreniere had to pull out of her Firebird debut due to injury -- Ashley Bouder danced instead. This meant she was paired with the towering Silas Farley, who made his debut as Prince. Farley was adorable -- courtly, a sensitive actor, but the height difference between the two dancers was awkward.

Miriam Miller as the Siren, photo @ Andrea Mohin
But Firebird was at least solid. Ashley Bouder has years of experience and knows how to make the best out of any situation. Prodigal Son was an outright disaster. Anthony Huxley had no problems with the steps -- he's one of the most explosive jumpers and turners the company has. Unfortunately Prodigal Son requires acting, and Huxley is also a rather wooden actor. In the opening scene when he beat against his father's chest Huxley's face only registered a pleasant, calm disposition. Peter Martins has also been pushing a tall, leggy blond Miriam Miller. And Miller did have the legs for the Siren. Unfortunately that's all she had. From the very beginning when she fumbled awkwardly with the cape and wobbled in those upward kicks it was apparent she didn't have the core strength for this part. The pas de deux was hampered by poor partnering and timing -- in that moment the Siren stands on the Son's shins and slides down, either Huxley let go too quickly or Miller lost her balance because her knees buckled and she face-planted. Unfortunate.

La Sonnambula also had three debuts. Zachary Catazaro as the Poet and Ashley Laracey as Coquette were exactly what you'd expect them to be -- two of the most elegant, classical dancers in the company. Laracey, by the way, was stunning in the Pas de Neuf of Balanchine's Swan Lake. But Claire Kretzschmar, who'd made such an impression as Coffee in Nutcracker, was miscast as Sleepwalker. Her bourreés were bumpy, and her upper body too stiff. You got the feeling she needed way more rehearsal and coaching time than she got.

Oh well. You can't win every time. But all in all, NYCB still gives the most consistently outstanding dancing of any company. And now I must see Sterling Hyltin dance a full-length Swan Lake.


  1. What a wonderful review...One side note though: I don't think Balanchine did change the Swan Lake setting to an "arctic winter wonderland." The arctic setting by Alan Vaes postdates Balanchine as do the black swans though the company website suggests Balanchine may have been planning on the latter before his death.

    1. Thanks for the correction. It really is hard to keep track of all the changes Balanchine made for his Swan Lake. And thanks for your kind words!


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