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Better Not to Mess With Tradition - Critique of Kevin McKenzie's version of Swan Lake

by Mila Gorokhovich
June 28, 2003
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Better Not to Mess With Tradition - Critique of Kevin McKenzie's version of Swan Lake

American Ballet Theatre

Lincoln Center

By Mila Gorokhovich
June 28, 2003

Although over the recent years, Julio Bocca and Nina Ananiashvili have been continuing to excite audiences with their individual fire, their duo as Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile in the love story Swan Lake was not particularly entertaining on June 28th, 2003 - the last performance of American Ballet Theatre's spring season. Perhaps Bocca was not having a successful evening. However, what surprised me was Kevin McKenzie's version of the classical ballet; Indeed, the change in choreography and variation rearrangement made the ballet appear awkward and incoherent. How can Rothbart, the evil sorcerer who whisks Princess Odette away, dance a variation to Tchaikovsky's Russian theme? The variation, which according to Marius Petipa's original version, was meant to be danced by a Russian Princess in the Act 2 ball scene? Patricia Dokoudovsky, ballet director of the New York Conservatory of Dance exclaimed, "If a director wants to manipulate 100 year old classical choreography, he should just create a new piece altogether!" As a fan of classical work myself, I agree with her.

Historically, the legendary Swan Lake that premiered with the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre on March 4, 1877 turned out to be quite a failure. Julius Wentzel Reisinger, an Austrian who was ballet master of the company from 1873-78, choreographed the ballet after Tchaikovsky wrote the score. Reviewers at the time criticized the stomping of the corps de ballet, "waiving their arms like a windmill's vanes." The performance was also exceptionally long - four hours. Pelegia Karpakova danced the role of Odette and Stanislav Gillert was Prince Siegfried. However, because the role of Odile had three asterisks in the program, the identity of the dancer is unknown and whether Karpakova danced both Odette and Odile remains a mystery.

Marius Petipa, a Frenchman who was the most influential choreographer of 19th century ballet in Russia, revived the ballet twenty - two years later in 1895. Petipa co-staged the ballet with Lev Ivanov, who is famous for choreographing the acclaimed Act II pas de deux- when Odette and Siegfried proclaim their love for one another and she reveals the curse that has captured her. Modest, Tchaikovsky's brother, revised the plotline. Most prominently, he altered Tchaikovsky's original tragic ending to a more glorious one in which Siegfried destroys Rothbart and joins Odette in eternal bliss. The ballet premiered on January 27, 1895 at the Marinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg with Peirina Legnani as Odette-Odile and Pavel Gerdt as Siegfried. Tchaikovsky's music captures the very essence of the ballet as each note complements the distinct steps and the sense of the character. Today, the original score remains the one constant of the ballet - a legacy among the various interpretations and versions of the Swan Lake choreography.

As the curtain opened, decorated with a water colored image of a lake, it was clear that the scenery was of extremely top quality - bright vivacious colors made the scenic woods appear very much alive and absorbing. As the festivity of Prince Siegfried's 21rst birthday initiated, young aristocrats and peasants joined in gaily. The girls' costumes looked bunchy and heavy even though they were colorful. Herman Cornejo gave a phenomenal performance as Benno, the Siegfried's friend, and partnered Xiomara Reyes and Erica Cornejo without much effort. He amazed the audience with his jumps, which seemed to freeze in the air. The sauts and grand jets were some of the repeated steps that are traditional among 19th century ballets. Bocca executed a plethora of sloppy tour jets although he did a good job at expressing his fear of the responsibility that he is given by his Queen Mother - that of choosing a bride at the evening ball. McKenzie explained that "I tried, through the course of the action, to develop the first act to the point where what slowly dawns on the young man that, well, he's not a kid anymore and along with the responsibility comes aloneness. When you're in a position of responsibility, you make your decisions alone. You can go everywhere for advice, but you have to make them alone. That's a frightening realization." Bocca did an excellent job throughout the ballet of giving that impression. But his technique lacked precision, clarity and it was certainly not his evening to partner the beautiful Ananiashvili. The latter was a most vulnerable and fragile Odette, performing the most bourrs as she left the prince after their poignant pas de deux in the second act. Her arms gave the illusion of being boneless - one of the most challenging elements to perform. The corps was certainly not altogether that evening. It is amazing what difference loud pointe shoes can make when there are about 18 dancers on the stage dancing the same steps. Their arms were jagged and not together as they should have been. Carmen Corella and Veronika Part did a very nice job as the two head swans. They presented a lot of energy and spice that made it interesting to watch.

All was alright until the Act three ball scene, which I felt, was completely severed by McKenzie's rearrangements. Princesses of various countries originally performed the initial dances for the Queen Mother and Prince Siegfried. It was a pity that these dances were only performed by the corps that the princesses brought with them. There is a beautiful variation for each dance. The Spanish dance seemed distasteful and unsynchronized and the two soloists who danced the Neapolitan dance - Carlos Lopez and Sascha Radetsky definitely needed more work on connecting with one another and being together. It was a shock to see that the Russian princess was eliminated and replaced by von Rothbart, who danced a strange variation to the famous violin solo. The music to each dance was composed as ethnically as possible to fit the essence of each country. So you can imagine how awkward it was to see the notorious Rothbart dancing to the Russian theme. It was equally strange to see the four princesses dancing with him. He drew them in and subsequently intimidated them but the dance made the princesses appear like zombies, completely captured by him. But Marcelo Gomez (Rothbart) must certainly be credited for his clean turns and fantastic dancing, even as it was unfitting to the music.

Ananiashvili's Odile was one of powerful attitude and spirit of supremacy at the ball. The 32 fouetts were particularly clean and sharp. Bocca reenergized and presented strong a la seconde turns.

It seemed that McKenzie kept Tchaikovsky's original intention of ending the story tragically, with Siegfried and Odette throwing themselves into the lake. However, Rothbart's power thus ceases to exist.

I was disappointed at the overall production and hold to the notion that original ballets should not be touched. It is fortunate that musical scores are kept intact, but quite a tragedy when traditional chorography is tampered with. The ultimate result, as proven with McKenzie's Swan Lake, is cumbersome and unfitting.

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