Original (?) Swan

The Village Voice 19 Dec 1968English

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Although we are forever hearing that American Ballet Theatre is teetering on the brink of financial ruin, its repertory still goes about in diamonds and sables. In this age of smart, sparse decor, ABT lugs elaborate backdrops and sturdy furniture around on its tours. Somewhere along the line, this pioneer of American ballet has decided to be a stronghold of classicism. Points in favor of this: 1) someone has to preserve the classics; 2) much of the American public has never seen said classics; 3) ABT has always been more impressive in dramatic ballets than in pure dance ones.

So now the company has Giselle and Coppelia (just acquired), and Swan Lake Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake was purchased, an act at a time, from David Blair of England's Royal Ballet. The Royal Ballet (in its early Vic-Wells incarnation) has been taught the work by Nicholas Sergeyev who had toted scores and notation straight from the Maryinsky Theatre where the 1895 version was first performed with choreography by Marius Petipa (Acts I and III) and Lev Ivanov (Acts II and IV). There have been a lot of other versions-then, now, and in between. If over the years the choreography has metamorphosed as much as the story, I can't say for sure whose ballet I really saw bursting the seams of the Brooklyn Academy stage the other night. (For example, in the earliest version of the scenario, the Swan Queen's grandfather has hidden her away at the bottom of the lake to keep her from the destructive wrath of her sorceress stepmother; he changes her and chums into swans by day as a favor, in order to let them get a little fresh air and exercise.)

ABT's add-a-pearl Swan Lake raises a few questions about how to resurrect a classic. Blair is credited in the program with revisions in some of the dances. Unfortunately, he was not tempted to insert a little dancing or genteel acting in place of the pantomime sections. It's not that ABT principals don't perform this codified mime well; they do. It's simply that the passages of repetitious, mute dialogue stop the action and give the characters a slightly dim-witted air ("Me no speakum English, but me lovum anyhow").

Acts I and III of Swan Lake teem with people-peasants and nobles on a spree in Act I, courtiers and royalty and entertainers in Act III. I don't care for Blair's direction of them, although he has draped them prettily about. The people were very ho-ho animated until anyone started some serious dancing; then they relapsed into vigilant, appraising stillness. Little in the supposedly festive first act (including Ted Kivitt's good, quietly bouncy dancing in the pas de trois) could match the stunning entrance of Bruce Marks as Prince Siegfried, all princely happiness and arrogance and holding a sleek Great Dane by the collar. (I mean a real dog-not Erik Bruhn)

The plot of Swan Lake is shaped to give plenty of hooks to hang dancing on, and, as everyone knows, the ballet has its choreographic attractions: the gentle, moonstruck pas de deux in Act II; the hard, flashy grand pas de deux in Act III; the sexy czardas; the white girls, docile in their perpetually symmetrical formations. The ballet also radiates that mysteriously satisfying quality of fairy tales: a froth of sugar and cream, satin and good breeding covering some darker, crueler myth of transformation, resurrection, and violent death. When daylight begins to leave Act I's jolly fete champetre and Benno points out the flight of swans to the Prince and they both dash off, crossbows in hand, there is a sudden, inexplicable chill in the air. ABT milks this atmosphere grandly with Oliver Smith's drops of ruined turrets over the lake and, later, the gloomy stone interior of Prince Siegfried's castle. Jean Rosenthal's lighting and a smoke machine contribute good things too.

There is something touching and infuriating about the characters in Swan Lake. They behave as if slowness on the uptake were an integral part of the romantic condition, or a prerequisite for nobility. Benno dashes with his bow right into the center of a cluster of swan maidens, who dutifully finish their variations before they cower. The Prince searches distractedly among the ladies for his beloved, even though he ought to know by now that her tutu is a good 12 inches shorter than anyone else's. Oh, they're all so pretty and hapless. Their predicaments brush against you ever so delicately-moving you, if at all, by the death of your own romantic fancies, rather than by their deaths, which are as painless and monochromatic as dream.

I thought that Bruce Marks made a splendid Siegfried. Despite a vile makeup job, he looked young and dashing, but had enough melancholy restraint to make his involvement with a bird-girl believable. Most important, he's a fine dancer, with a particularly noble carriage of the head and upper body. Toni Lander was better as Odile than she was as Odette, by virtue of her strength and brilliance. She was certainly skillful in the white acts-softening her formidable attack and phrasing very delicately at times. But she was always centered, always on balance, always so very sure, and she lacks flexibility in the back. All this made her very much the well-bred princess, but did not permit the wildness and the vulnerability that I like to see in the bird parts. Enrique Martinez, Lucia Chase, and Richard Gain play respectively - and very well - the foolish old tutor, the Prince's mother, and the wicked sorcerer. It's good to see a von Rothbart who can really flap around in his death throes.

What about full-length story ballets anyhow? Well, I'm for going the whole hog, if you're going to do it at all. I'd rather yawn through the dull parts than see disembodied second acts and characterless snapcrackle-and-pop pas de deux. The idea of authenticity is intriguing, but I'll bet the original Swan Lake has long since been blurred in its hand-to-hand passage. The question remains: would a really free and swinging version make the story seem ridiculous, or would it release the spirit of the original Swan?

It strikes me now that when I wrote this piece either I still harbored the modern dancer's view of ballet as charming, but hopelessly oldfashioned, or else I was playing the role of intransigent young critic to its slangy hilt. Eight years later, I see no point in updating classics and have become fond of mime passages in ballet. No matter how drastic the situation, everyone waits his turn to "speak," and I enjoy the rich, polite leisureliness of that.