Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

You can't always
get what you want


Mariinsky Ballet's 'Swan Lake' plays Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley

Members of the Mariinsky Ballet perform in Swan Lake. (Photo: Courtesy of Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra)
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When I was a Rhodes Scholar living in England, a performance by the Royal Ballet of Swan Lake drove me to the edge of terror and made me realize that this ballet is a tragedy as profound as Hamlet. Ever since, I've approached Swan Lake with dread, fearing that I'd be destroyed like that again, or that nothing could recreate those feelings.

Hope springs eternal. The chance to see a real Russian production such as last week's run of Swan Lake performed in Berkeley by the Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra of St. Petersburg gave me such hopes. But on opening night, only the ballerina, the corps de ballet, and the orchestra were first-rate. The next night was much improved, since the whole company had adjusted to the cramped conditions of the stage and its slippery floor. It would be fair to say they had a triumph.

Swan Lake is a poetic tragedy told as a moving picture with only the power of personal beauty, scenic effects, sincerity of gesture, and music to take your heart and wring you out. The orchestra (conductor Mikhail Agrest) played Tchaikovsky's haunting score beautifully. From the oboe's first halting melody, carried down into the clarinet and into the strings, the sound was glorious. Tchaikovsky sets up an oscillation of ominous and hopeful melodies which drives the story and breathes life into a pair of delicate creatures: Prince Siegfried, who's unready to take on the duties of kingship; and his soulmate Odette, a princess who's been enthralled by a sorcerer and subjected to a spell which turns her into a swan.

Members of the Mariinsky Ballet perform in Swan Lake. (Photo: Courtesy of Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra)

This is a philosophic fable masquerading as a fairy tale, and just when it seems least plausible, it sucks you in. The Prince, whose 21st birthday is celebrated in a first-act party, realizes he's about to have to cross a line he's not ready to cross, and restless, goes out hunting by night. Beside a lake he sees a beautiful swan, aims his bow, and finds his arm paralyzed – he cannot shoot. Siegfried recognizes in Odette the only one he could ever love even as she changes from a swan into a woman. The situation requires all the absurdities of ballet technique and style – Odette steps out onto the tip of her toe, subsides into a lunge, and shakes out her wings, which turn into arms even as she lengthens her neck. All the CGI arts that made Gollum believable pale against the powers of a ballerina to make you believe she's a swan.

At this, both Ekaterina Kondaurova and Oksana Skoryk, the ballerinas for the first two performances, were astonishingly apt. The corps de ballet similarly stylized their postures and their dance-moves so artfully, the illusion cast its spell. The audience must make a willing suspension of disbelief, but can only do so when the dancers use their imagination and project their images with complete conviction in a uniform style. In Swan Lake's Act II both nights, the Russian dancers were flawless. The problems came in the outlying acts.

Once you're inside the story, and accept the idea of magic, what's the magician going to be like? Do we want a medieval magician? Do we want a restless spirit of evil, or a terrifying figure who creates despair? And what is the overall arc of feeling?

Forgive me if I have to fill in some back-story. During the Soviet era, ballet survived by making the classics relevant to the proletariat – the heroic artists of the ballet presented classical technique in a clarified form, leaving behind the daintiness of the old style, and making the fairy tales into fables that presented the ideals of communism in a way that inspired ordinary people to make great sacrifices for the sake of a more hopeful future. Swan Lake was turned from a tragedy into a struggle with a happy ending. In the last 20 years, especially since the rise of Putin, the Soviet outlook has been re-valorized, and the version of Swan Lake we saw is the Stalin-approved version [by Konstantin Sergeyev] from 1950.

Members of the Mariinsky Ballet perform in Swan Lake. (Photo: Courtesy of Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra)

From the beginning, Sergeyev points us to a happy ending. He adds a jester to the story who is constantly mocking the prince's tutor; the jester gets much quirky virtuoso dancing to perform and gets to win every contest with the tutor, who looks less the voice of reason than an old schoolmarm.

Sergeyev trivializes the evil sorcerer Rotbart so that at the end, Siegfried can fight and destroy him. First of all, he pulls Rotbart off his power spot and makes him dance – indeed, both Rotbarts I saw (Konstantin Zverov in the first cast, Andrey Solovyov on Thursday) were brilliant dancers who made the prince look a little weak.

Sergeyev did a brilliant job of creating a consistent "cheered up" Swan Lake. He has trivialized the tragic last act, made the dances almost perky, by cleverly omitting the more melancholy music for the choral dances, and by making the sorcerer a lurid charlatan in the third act.

While in the original, Rotbart has outmaneuvered Odette with a brilliant intrigue, and cast a spell over his own daughter Odile to make her resemble our heroine, and brought her to court to trap Siegfried into proposing in front of the whole court to the false-seeming swan, and the rash promise cannot be undone, in Sergeyev's version the Prince can just fight the sorcerer, break his wing, and that will break the spell. Problem is, the music requires a Gotterdaemmerung-scale disaster, a complete destruction and drowning of  everything. This is why Matthew Bourne's all-male-swan version is the most powerful, since the stage picture matches the catastrophe we hear in the music.

Ekaterina Kondaurova was thrilling as both the white swan and as her diabolical parody, the black swan. In all technical matters she reigned supreme: the white swan's gestures unfurled magnificently, and her evil simulacrum bore a glamor so potent, so sexy, so commanding, and so thrilling in her actual dancing, she drove me crazy – so of course, she fooled the prince.

The prince in the second cast, Vladimir Shklyaurov, outshone his swan queen. He was heart-breakingly beautiful. Oksana Skoryk, his very young ballerina, has imagination, musicality, a gloriously unfurling line, but her fear of the technical difficulties of Act III shone through, distorted her shoulders and neck, made her very difficult to partner – at one point, it looked like both the Prince and von Rotbart were going to have to hold her up on pointe, which scared us, though nothing disastrous happened, and she finished the act and the ballet in excellent form.

The corps danced with wonderful discipline and good temper throughout. Thursday night's first-act pas de trois deserve naming: Ekaterina Ivannikova, Nadezda Gonchar, Alexander Perish; both Rotbarts were wonderful, Konstantin Zverev and Andrey Solovyov. And the little swans were superb: Anastasya Mikheyevna, Svetlana Ivanova, Elena Chmil, Marisa Shirinkina. Again, it was the orchestra who carried them. They were out of this world.


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