Swan Lake

The American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 27.

Swan Lake is my favorite ballet—kind of pedestrian of me, I guess, but it’s perfect, and as much as I enjoy Giselle and Cinderella, they can’t compare to the perfection of Swan Lake.

First, the story is beautifully straightforward, just enough plot to give the dancing rich emotional context without bogging it down with a lot of expositional pantomime. In another medium, the simple story might be simplistic, but ballet thrives on such elemental, good-and-evil tales. What’s more, the story’s few adornments lend themselves to sumptuous choreography. A curse might manifest itself in countless ways, but Von Rothbart transforms Odette and her compatriots into swans, thus inspiring all manner of gorgeous, bird-like gestures for Odette and her chorus of swan maidens. And Von Rothbart’s trick of disguising his daughter Odile as Odette gives the prima ballerina an irresistible dual role, first shy and delicate, then fierce and alluring.

Second, the score includes some of Tchaikovsky’s finest music. The oboe has the famous swan theme, of course, the lilting melody suggesting the rise and fall of wings, but the violin gets my favorite passages. For Odette and Siegfried’s first pas de deux, the concertmaster plays a long-lined, achingly romantic air, sparsely accompanied, eventually a duet with a solo cello. The third act features the Russian dance (given to Von Rothbart in this production) with the solo violinist taking on an acrobatic, passionate, gypsy-like tune. To my mind, it’s almost criminal that he isn’t invited on stage for a closing curtain call.

Finally, the classic Swan Lake choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov—the basis for most contemporary productions, including this one by Kevin McKenzie—has a wonderful sense of detail. Take the famous dance of the four cygnets. The linked arms and neatly synchronized steps are charming on their own, but the matching bird-like head movements are what make it so memorable. Throughout the ballet, you see that kind of consummate detail, from the graceful collective poses of the swan maidens to the way Odette bows, pushing her slender arms up and back like wings.

Gillian Murphy made a lovely Odette, sensitive and elegant and agile, and a sinuously sultry Odile. Gennadi Saveliev’s Von Rothbart was smolderingly charismatic, captivating Siegfried’s would-be brides with flamboyant leaps and light-footed agility while Odile seduced the prince.

And the prince, well, he was great, too, but I’m confused about who, exactly, I have to thank for that. According to the program, David Hallberg had the role before intermission and Ethan Stiefel after, and I don’t know why they’d split the part like that. (During intermission, I imagined all sorts of farcical scenarios: Hallberg had a date at 10! Stiefel’s opening-act costume was at the cleaners! Murphy refuses to dance the Black Swan Pas de Deux with anyone but her boyfriend, Stiefel!) I wondered whether it was a mistake, but the program insert, detailing last-minute substitutions, didn’t indicate as much, and perhaps it was just the suggestion, but Siegfried did look different when the curtain rose again: narrower shoulders, maybe, and longer extension.

My inability to see the man’s face from where I sat annoyed me. (Hallberg and Stiefel are both blond, but they look nothing alike, so it shouldn’t have been hard to identify the dancer.) But when it comes to tickets, Sean and I can afford significant quantity or high quality but not both, and as we like to go out several times a month, our choice is apparent. Still, for a few moments I was bitter. I’d love to be able to see the dancers’ facial expressions instead of divining emotion solely through their body language. It isn’t fair that I’m stuck in the nose-bleeds when I love the ballet so much and attend so faithfully.

But then the music washed my frustration away, and the choreography captivated me, and by the time the swan maidens slowly stilled their fluttering wings as the spell broke, I wasn’t angry anymore. Why be angry? Even from high in the family circle, Swan Lake is perfect.

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