Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty
New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
January 27 - February 14, 2010
By Michael Popkin (copyright 2010 Michael Popkin)
With Swan Lake following Sleeping Beauty at New York City Ballet these past three weeks (both in the company's streamlined Peter Martins' versions) the two great Tschaikovsky ballets have made an interesting contrast. Swan Lake on the one hand is a quintessentially romantic ballet; as in Giselle or La Sylphide, the hero - yearning for love - enters a forest glade in the moonlight, pursues a supernatural heroine and is either destroyed or at least ends the ballet bereft and alone. Sleeping Beauty on the other hand is classical ballet par excellence: the prince gets the girl; malign forces are overcome, order is established in the realms, and all ends in a suite of sparkling dances. The striking thing about the two works, however - and the essence of their contrast - is the way each of them actually contains within itself a mini-version of the other. The Vision scene in Beauty is essentially a little Swan Lake in miniature: the prince meets his vision of Aurora in the moonlight in very much the same way that Siegfried will later meet Odette in the othe work; it's the happy ending and wedding at the end that makes the difference. The middle act of Swan Lake on the other hand (concluding with the Black Swan pas de deux) gives us exactly the kind of divertissement of classical and national dances as does the wedding that Beauty ends with - except that in Swan Lake the celebration and betrothal go terribly wrong. The two ballets are in a way distorted images of each other turned inside out.
* * * *
Despite this contrast, the current winter season at City Ballet, subtitled "Classics," poses the question of whether and why the company should be programming these works in such concentration. Along with Martins' Romeo + Juliet, half of the eight week season has been taken up with them and the effect, as I see it, is to emphasize a negative trend towards reducing the ballet repertory at the major American companies to a few standard and familiar works. Virgil Thomson, writing about the repertory of so called "classical" music in the 1960's, used to make the point (in my paraphrase) that "classical music" had become in his time the same fifty works played over and over again by every symphony orchestra in the country, if not the world. If anything, ballet is in even worse shape in this connection: with The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Beauty, Giselle, increasingly Coppelia (in the Balanchine version - which, rumour has it, is being acquired by a couple of American companies at the moment) and five or six others, we are talking about the same dozen ballets being programmed by every single company.
And NYCB in particular posseses a priceless repertory of its own, and one that completely breaks this mold; so why neglect it to program in this way? Balanchine's idea of a ballet company was precisely one that rejected this paradigm and I thus can't view with indifference a season that represents a total retreat from, if not surrender of, this point. The contrary arguments are that the "classics" sell tickets (but so does the circus); that the audience loves to see favorite dancers tackle the iconic roles in these ballets (and so why not give them what they want); that performing these ballets develops the dancers (and so why not give them too what they want); and finally that they are good vehicles to introduce a young (in this case a very young, even infantile) audience to the art form. These points are not in the case of NYCB persuasive to me. Every other company does these ballets and most do them better. The clinching argument is that these are not works, in the last analysis, that City Ballet even does particularly well.
* * * *
Ensconced in a newly renovated theater, the company has indeed sold tickets, though not until last week's Swan Lake in palpably greater quantity than in prior Winter seasons. Meanwhile the company seems to be struggling to adjust to the technical aspects of its renovated house. The expanded and relocated orchestra pit (it has been moved forward) has in particular proved a problem to adjust to, with the dancers at times looking like they either have trouble hearing the music on the stage, or seeing the conductor, particularly when variations start in the far upstage corners. The sound of the music in the auditorium - noticably more sonorous at some moments - has been inconsistent at others and one noticed last week that the stands of French horns had been moved, for the first time in memory, to an opposite side of the orchestra than that of the other brass.
The development of the company's young ballerinas in the blockbuster roles of the Tschaikovsky ballets has also provided mixed results. The strongest debut was that of young Tiler Peck in Beauty, where the ingenuous radiance of her person and effortless strength and grace of her dancing justified repeated visits to the theater; at the opposite end of the spectrum, Sterling Hyltin's Aurora (which she repeated from three years ago) represented a setback for a dancer who until that point had been having an absolute breakout star season by any standard; the major role made on her by Alexey Miroschnichenko in The Lady With The Little Dog having provided her with a vehicle that displayed every one of her many brilliant qualities: a technique of steel combined with a touching openess and indeed vulnerability of personality on the stage; a slight Russian scent to her training that persists to this day and that Miroshnichenko emphasized by choreographing on her in nearly a Kirov style; and an extraordinary ability to pose and achieve finished positions in the air during lifts.
Ashley Bouder, as both Aurora and as Odette/Odile, reprised triumphant performances in these roles from prior seasons; but especially in Swan Lake it has to be noted that she is physically miscast. Bouder has a long back and not much extension; her proportions do not look particularly good in a classical tutu - and in particular the tutu and headdress in Swan Lake do not suit her. She also has built into her smile and expression the irrepressible persona of the good old, American girl next door from Carlisle Pennsylvania - of the lead cheerleader from Carlisle high school so to speak. Properly used, this Self is the source of her greatest strength as a dancer - her prodigious musicality, integrity and honesty in interpretation. If she must act, she can do both tragic and heroic well and her Vision scene in Beauty, ballasted by her seemingly innate emotional understanding of tragedy, was lovely. But in Swan Lake the jarring effect just of seeing her first entrance in the costume took time to overcome; overcome it she did, however, in a performance that was a tour de force both of her physical command of the ballet vocabulary and of musical interpretation; but it was a performance that needed to be prodigious in those qualities to compensate for its very existence.
Young Kathryn Morgan's debut in Beauty was pleasing and promising, but no more than that; she has all the talent in the world but is raw and unfinished at this point, needing in particular to sharpen her attack (and to be more centered) in turns. She is so immensely gifted, all the same, that one readily agrees with the decision to cast her here. She needs above all to dance right now and has the strength and presence for such roles.
One ballerina who is not miscast in Swan Lake on the other hand is Maria Kowroski; she has danced Odette-Odile for more than a decade now both here and as a guest at the Kirov; and apart from Peck's Aurora, Kowroski's performance of Swan Lake, her second time out, at the matinee on February 13th, was the highlight of the winter season to this point. Looking beautiful in the costume, she made superb use of her eyes, extended her technique successfully beyond her usual mastery of adagio to the grand allegro portions of the score, and delivered a performance (indeed keyed the entire company to a performance) that was satisfying as both drama and dance.
Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy of NYCB: top, Ashley Bouder in The Vision scene of Peter Martins' Sleeping Beauty; bottom Maria Kowroski and Charles Askegaard in Act II of Peter Martins' Swan Lake.