Ballet Review: Swan Lake Part I

Dear Readers:

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

So, this past Sunday I had the exciting experience of watching the Bolshoi Ballet “Swan Lake” in an American cinema.  These great programs are presented by a thing called “Fathom Events”, and include something for every taste on the big screen:  classical movies, Metropolitan Opera productions, and now also Bolshoi Ballet productions from Moscow.  I highly recommend especially the opera and ballet shows for serious culture-vultures.

For the 2016-2017 Fathom season the Bolshoi picked several classical favorites including “The Nutcracker“, which I saw and reviewed here; “Sleeping Beauty” which I saw but didn’t have time to review (My basic review:  It was really good!); and also “Swan Lake“.   There are only two ballets left in this Fathom series for this season, a modern dance; and a new ballet called “A Hero Of Our Time“, based on Lermontov’s novel, of course.

As with the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, these lavishly-staged and costumed Bolshoi Ballets are a fantastic way to imbibe some culture without having to travel all the way to Moscow (or New York).  Obviously, you don’t get the raw experience of being right there, in that historical theater with all the ambience.  Nor is the sound probably as perfect as the live orchestra (although HD technology has come a long way and gives an excellent sound quality).  On the other hand, there are some pluses too:  For starters, you can eat popcorn.  Also, the movie-type technology allows you to see different camera angles and close-ups of the dancers.  You can see their facial expressions, their intricate fast-footwork; the sweat on their brows; their enormous codpieces….

Prince Siegfried and “Evil Genius”

Speaking of codpieces, the principal role of Prince Siegfried was danced by Bolshoi super-star Denis Rodkin.  Rodkin formerly studied under legendary dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, and now is coached by Yuri Vladimirov.  Denis is the complete package (no pun intended):  He is delicate and graceful like a girl, with long lines and beautiful extensions; but also a superbly athletic jumper.  His leaps look effortless, like he is floating in air, and his landings are quiet, like he landed on a feather.  (Instead of a big CLUNK, as with some dancers.)  Notwithstanding his delicate build, his upper-arm strength is sufficient to be able to lift a 45-kilo girl well up over his head, without visible effort.  And then, even more importantly, put her down again safely without dropping her.

Let’s Meet Odette!

As the story begins, our innocent young Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday at a big banquet, hosted by Queen Mom and the various courtiers.  If Siegie were Jewish, this would be his bar mitzvah, because this is the day when he becomes a man.  Who knows, maybe he will even be King soon, because there doesn’t seem to be a Dad around this place.  The only father figure available is the court jester, danced in this production by the stupendous Igor Tsvirko.  Tsvirko is an amazing athlete, he can just rip off triple jumps from a standing position with no visible effort, land on one foot, and then grin at the audience like the Fool that he is.

Tsvirko as The Fool keeps things lively at court.

As his birthday present, Siegfried is given a sword and Knighted; and then Mom tells him it is time for him to get married.  What she has in mind for him is some cute Princess-Bride from one of the neighboring kingdoms.  In a later act, we will see the choices that Mom has selected:  A Spanish bride.  A Neapolitan bride.  A Hungarian bride.  A Polish bride.  Even perhaps a Russian bride!  All of them equally pretty, and all of them great dancers.

With these charming possibilities ahead of the Prince, this is the moment when Siegfried is approached by the aptly-named “Evil Genius” character.  Who whispers in his ear that it is time to head out to the nearby lake.  Smart people who have studied Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece know that “Evil Genius” is Siegfried’s double.  His evil twin, his Doppelganger.  And the Grigorovich choreography pounds in this notion by having Evil Genius and Siegfried dance together “mirroring” each other’s jumps and turns.

Svetlana Zakharova as Odette, the White Swan

What Evil Genius, operating under duplicitous motives, wants Siegfried to see, is the Swan Girl, Odette, aka Siegfried’s True Love.  Evil Genius knows that Siegfried will not be able to resist the sweet vulnerability of this downy-cheeked maiden.  In this production, Odette was performed by Bolshoi Principal Dancer Svetlana Zakharova, considered one of the greatest ballerinas of our current era.  Zakharova, whose long lines and extensions make her look like she is made of rubber, started ballet lessons at a relatively old age:  Ten.  Sveta was accepted into the Kiev Choreography School, where she studied for six years, and then won a spot in St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy.  Her career soon took off into the big time:  the Mariinsky Ballet and then the Bolshoi.  Her story is proof that not everybody has to start their work at the barre by the age of three in order to become a great dancer.  Please note, though, that Zakharova is the exception that proves the rule.  Parents:  If you want your child to be a ballerina, then she really should start by the age of 3 or 4.  Seriously…  Not everybody can be a Zakharova.

Anyhow…  Arriving at Swan Lake, Siegfried notices right away that, as its name suggests, the lake is literally teeming with swans.  Beautiful and pure white swans.  All of them dressed in the same white tutus and looking exactly alike.  Except for Odette.  Odette is dressed exactly the same as the others, but unlike them she wears a small tiara on her head.  That’s how you can tell her apart.  That, plus her superior extension and technique.

The swans are forced to swim in circles.

‘Zounds, it seems that Evil Genius has captured himself a whole gaggle of girls and put them under his spell.  By day, the girls are trapped in avian bodies and forced to swim around in circles, in an endless sequence of grand jetés.  Only at night do they turn back into girls, but they are still not allowed to leave the lake.  Every time one of them tries to escape and go home, Evil Genius just waves his arms and uses his psychokinetic powers to lure her back into the flock.

Siegfried is not even remotely curious about the other girl swans.  He only has eyes for the lithe and feathery Odette.  The two young people dance a pas de deux or two, and Siegfried lifts her up overhead.  Several times.  And spins her around, and does various other unspeakable and technically difficult things with her.  Somehow the message is conveyed to our love-struck Prince (either by Evil Genius, or Odette, or both) that yes, he can break the spell cast upon Odette.  He can turn her back into a regular girl 24/7.  Maybe even the other girls too (as a bonus).   But the spell can be broken only by True Love.  Will Siegfried be able to maintain his devotion to Odette and avoid the temptation of other girls who might wander, or even swim, his way?  [hint hint]  As the curtain closes, Siegfried kneels on the ground and raises his right hand up to Heaven.  The mime is clear:  He vows to love this Odette swan forever and marry her; and thus will he break the curse that is upon her.

[to be continued]

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