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The Carolina Ballet premiered a new version of Swan Lake on May 19 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium to close the company's seventh season. In its traditional form, as choreographed by Marius Pepita and Lev Ivanov 110 years ago, Swan Lake is perhaps the grandest example of a grand art. Danced to Tchaikovsky's sweeping, superbly romantic music, it is fairy tale writ large by a very large corps of dancers – the swans alone number more than the Carolina Ballet's entire company. But Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss has boldly re-written this classic story of dark sorcery and the greater enchanting powers of pure love to fit his company and his audience. Inspired by the more intimate version of the tale by Lisbeth Zwerger and by her book's strangely beautiful illustrations, Weiss has staged a magical new Swan Lake, replete with beautiful dances, that should take its place in the repertories of contemporary ballet companies around the country.
Weiss has made some changes to the story, nipping, tucking, and otherwise altering the score to fit (though you hardly notice he's taken out 45 minutes), but the basic plot remains the same. A handsome young prince (Timour Bourtasenkov), hunting in the forest at night after a party with his friends, comes upon a beautiful woman and falls in love – but at dawn, she turns into a swan, for she has been put under a spell by an evil sorcerer (Cyrille de la Barre). The next night the prince's mother tries to force him to pick a wife from a parade of pretty girls who have come to his birthday party. The prince withstands them all – until the Sorcerer appears with his daughter, whom the prince takes to be the swan woman, recovered. Just after vowing his love for the dark daughter, he glimpses his true love beyond the window. Racing into the night, he obtains her forgiveness, but the Sorcerer attempts to wrest her away, and a tremendous battle ensues, to the full sound and fury of Tchaikovsky's cymbals and horns. Love, naturally, conquers all, and the Sorcerer is vanquished, leaving the Prince and the Swan Princess to dance to some of the loveliest music ever written for a pas de deux.
The role of the Swan Princess/the Sorcerer's Daughter (Odette/Odile; the White Swan/the Black Swan) is one of the great female roles in ballet, and on May 19 was danced very beautifully by Lilyan Vigo. With her marvelous long neck, neat head and elegant arms, she is visually perfect for the Swan Princess, but it is her ability to switch from sweet and vulnerable to seductive and dangerous as the Sorcerer's Daughter that allows her to fulfill the role. Weiss has made wonderful dances for her in both personae. In the first pas de deux with the Prince in the night forest she is delicate and graceful, glowing with shy love. When she appears at the ball in a glittering dark dress, all false humility and ravening power, she makes the hairs on your arms stand up as she kicks and hooks her leg like a tango dancer on pointe. At the end, rescued by love, she is sublime.
This sublimity is in no small part due to her Prince, Timour Bourtasenkov. He is truly a danseur noble. Nobility of spirit, like other aspects of the heroic in art, is not much in fashion currently, but fortunately a few souls carry the pattern for it, preserving it until such time as culture will return to its value. Bourtasenkov is one of these, and it shows in the set of his head on his neck, in the openness of his chest, in the way he moves with zest but without greed or hurry, and in the tender respect with which he treats his partners. He can be happy, joyous even, and he can be melancholy and suffering, but I don't know that Bourtasenkov could dance mean or evil.
Cyrille de la Barre, who has shown himself in his first season with the company to be a bold and versatile dancer, is an excellent foil. Unlike Bourtasenkov, de la Barre can dance the bad guy with ease. He was fabulous as the Sorcerer, really scary. When he is in the forest, turning women into swans, the Sorcerer appears as an owl, and Weiss has given him all sorts of swooping and pouncing moves which he executes with a frightening and malevolent ferocity. If anything, he is more frightening in evening clothes at the ball, where he vamps the Prince's mother, Melissa Podcasy. De la Barre and Podcasy were dynamite, with sparks flying madly in their dance together. One hopes to see that combination in action again next season. Podcasy is so powerful that she generally dominates her partners. However, de la Barre is her equal in that particular kind of power, and she cannot dominate him, making for a very different chemistry from the mix of grace and power we have been used to seeing with Podcasy and Bourtasenkov.
Weiss created a suite of fine dances for another of the company's pairs, Pablo Javier Perez and Margaret Severin-Hansen. Appearing in the first scene as the Prince's Friend and his Betrothed, their joyous, affectionate, committed love sets the standard: The Prince must not simply make a good match, he must find true love. This suite of dances is among Weiss's best work – lyrical, playful, beautiful and enmeshed with the music. I wished I could have watched their pas de deux several times over. Both Perez and Severin-Hansen were working at full wattage, and they were dazzling. Spontaneous applause repeatedly drowned out the orchestra, and conductor Alfred Sturgis appeared torn between getting on with it and waiting until the players could be heard. (Sadly, they and others from the first act did not appear during the curtain calls to receive their full share of adoration.)
The ballet includes too many wonderful dances to mention them all, but particularly notable ones include the first dance of the swan maidens, which is reminiscent of Weiss's Dance of the Snowflakes in his Nutcracker, but considerably more melancholy. The nine women float through the patterns of the dance with exquisite grace, and when they settle to the floor – with legs disappearing beneath their tulle skirts, heads angled – you feel you have actually seen them changed into swans.
The Gentlemen of the Court have a rousing dance early on. Maximillien Baud, Attila Bongar, Rudy Candia, Dameon Nagel, Wei Ni, and Edgar Vardanian – this group of men has become a very tight ensemble over this season. All are wonderful dancers individually, but together they have a special energy that Weiss exploits here.
Weiss has also taken full advantage of the different and vivid personalities of his ballerinas for the series of dances of the princesses who hope to take home the Prince. Heather Eberhardt is boldly come-hither; Margot Martin is pert and sassy. Lara O'Brien and Hong Yang are both deeply elegant, but O'Brien is more sweeping while Hong Yang is delicately precise. Traci Gilchrest, visiting from the North Carolina Dance Theatre of Charlotte, is mysterious and intriguing. Claudia Schreiber danced particularly well, without cunning, glowing in her blue dress with an innocent hope. Weiss has given each woman a dance that showcases her style and strengths.
Altogether, this Swan Lake is the most satisfying of Weiss's several fine story ballets. In addition to the glorious work of his dancers, Weiss was aided in achieving this success by the considerable talents of designer Jeff A.R. Jones, who translated Lisbeth Zwerger's compelling illustrations into stage sets, and by costumer David Heuvel's fine work. As usual, Ross Kolman's imaginative lighting effects bring the stage to life. But all this would have been for naught without the contribution of Alfred Sturgis and the fine musicians, who like the dancers, demonstrated themselves equally adept at the delicate passage as at the roaring crescendo. With their presence, Carolina Ballet's Swan Lake was a total work of art, one that will merit repeated revivals and reward repeated viewings.
Note: The run continues through 5/23 – see our calendar for details. Swan Lake will be revived in February in Chapel Hill.