Posted by: strugglesome | March 6, 2011

Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board: The Pennsylvania Ballet Company’s Swan Lake

Swan Lake has had itself quite a year. We could say it’s just a beautiful piece of music and dance getting it’s proper recognition in the world, but let’s be honest, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan has transformed what was a ballet known primarily to music lovers and ballet groupies into an internationally acknowledged phenomenon. And the irony is, of course, that if you know one ballet you know The Nutcracker, and if you know two ballets you know Swan Lake, both of which were composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It’s rather a shame Aranofsky didn’t make a film about the Rite of Spring or Romeo and Juliet, both of those could use a pop culture boost. But he didn’t, and there is no use crying over spilled swan feathers. And we certainly can’t accuse the Pennsylvania Ballet Company of trying to milk the publicity, given that this production of the ballet was created and produced in 2004 for the 40th anniversary season and was revived this year by sheer chance. Though, given the full house I witnessed on Friday night, I’m sure the buzz didn’t hurt…

I personally have seen Swan Lake 6 times. It’s not that it’s my favorite ballet, though it is certainly up there, but, frankly, it’s produced so often that it’s hard not to see this piece. And there is a good reason for this. Quite simply, the music is incredible, it’s indescribably fantastic, and it’s worth seeing this dance piece solely to hear Tchaikovsky’s incomparable score. Of course, one would hope that’s not the only reason to see this ballet, but the sad fact is that with music this amazing the dance can often end up working hard to measure up and not quite meeting the grade. And while that is not always the case with this particular production, it is an issue in these performances, and, sadly, it’s not the only one.

This production has earned itself a fair amount of press aside from the Oscar buzz because newcomer Lauren Fadeley is taking on the roles of Odette/Odile, the white and black swans who flutter around the stage and captivate the audience. Fadeley is remarkable, in the ballet world, not just because she is extremely talented and painfully fit, but because she is neither a principle of the company nor a soloist, no, she is a lowly stooge from the Corps de Ballet, a dancer who is typically seen and not noticed, someone who, as Jody Sawyer once said:  would be spending [her] best dancing years in the back of a corps waving a rose back and forth, and [she’s} better than that”. Oh, I’m sorry, did I not mention that this whole production feels like one big Center Stage reference? That was extremely remiss of me, I apologize.

There is a reason that concept ballet is not especially popular, and that reason lies in the ballet dancers. Of course there are exceptions to this, but ballet dancers as a rule are truly terrible actors, and this piece is no exception. So while the minds behind the work are trying to create a fairly complicated back story that represents a dance studio in late 19th century Paris that is practicing Swan Lake, a rehearsal that becomes internalized by the lead dancer who is playing Prince Siegfried (the talented but emotionally torpid Zachary Hench, who has the face of a Bronzino painting). The whole piece is supposed to be happening in Hench’s head, pieced together from his own imagination and the fervor of Paris at the end of the 19th century, a theme that is continually scored by costumes based on Degas’ paintings (by designer Jean-Marc Puissant).  At times, these costumes are fantastic; watching the corps “rehearse” in the first act in bodices and full skirts a la Degas’ Little Dancer (on display in the permanent collection in the Philadelphia Museum of Art)    is a joy to watch, whereas the concept Puissant has developed for the swans (fluffy white messes with unfortunate and uncomfortable looking sleeves and odd butterfly motifs on each breast) seem completely incongruent with the work. The set design also feels in conflict with the piece, divorcing the audience from the magic of the story and confining them to the fake structures created by designer Adrianne Lobel. The lighting by Natasha Katz doesn’t help the issue, making what is an extremely deep stage feel cramped and painfully small.

And then there is, of course, the race issue. Ballet is, perhaps, one of the least accessible forms of dance for anyone outside of the white upper middle class elite. Simply put, the ballet world is predominately white and aimed at a white audience. It is, in fact, shocking that Stuff White People like has yet to list this dance form as a topic, but I have every confidence that they will soon. The world of ballet has itself been predominantly white as well, and the PA Ballet is no exception to this, featuring but two persons of color, Jermel Johnson (who may or may not be made of rubber, he is that flexible and able) and former principle Meredith Rainey, who plays Von Rothbart, the scary magician who enchants the swans and manipulates the action of the piece. And in a company that included more dancers of color, this might go unnoticed. But in a company like this one, having an older black male dancer (one of only two in the company) commanding and abusing a large collective of white women brings up all sorts of scary and scintillating “Buck” references. I’m going to have to assume that this is all unintentional, but as it turns out, intentionality is somewhat meaningless when confronted by result.

But more then any of this, there is the story itself, the beautiful and heartbreaking narrative of love found and floundering, of redemption through sacrifice, of the tragedy of true sentiment. And in that sense, this production is clearly making a Herculean effort to represent that struggle, and in many ways is does it beautifully. Fadeley is a fantastic dancer, expressive, graceful ,with faultless technique, the only downside is her complete lack of chemistry with her counterpart, Hench. Hench himself is clearly talented and fills out a pair of tights nicely, but “emotes” too artificially to actually relate to. PA ballet veterans like Martha Chamberlian and Amy Aldridge shine in their solos, adding panache and poise to what could have been throwaway moments in other people’s hands. But the real commendation of this piece ought to go to the Corps de Ballet, who play along with the ill-advised concept with good-natured humor and dance as the swans with talent and empathy that compel the audience.  The Cygnets, who dance what is probably the most famous piece in this ballet, the four dancer section performed in tandem, Laura Bowman, Phobe Garvula, Abigail Mentzer and the sadly too short Ryoko Sadoshima (who acquits herself as a dancer in every other aspect but drags this section down), perform along with the music beautifully, delighting the audience in a rare refreshment from Christopher Wheeldon’s rather overdone choreography.

But despite all of this, and all of the issues one could read into this production, the reality is that this is a solid and engaging (if overlong) production of a classic and gorgeously moving ballet. So if you are interested in seeing this production of Swan Lake, or any production of this rich and wonderful ballet, tickets are available here.

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