Dance Review: Swans’ Return at Boston Ballet

Even the hippest of us can succumb to a deep longing for harmony, lush orchestration, and magic.

Swan Lake at Boston Ballet. Boston Opera House, Boston, MA, through May 26.

Guest Artist Gonzalo Garcia and Principle in Boston Ballet's "Swan Lake." Photo: Courtesy of Boston Ballet

Guest Artist Gonzalo Garcia and Principle Misa Kuranaga in Mikko Nissinen’s “Swan Lake.” Photo: Gene Schiavone, courtesy Boston Ballet.

By Marcia B Siegel

Mikko Nissinen’s version of Swan Lake premiered a year and a half ago, and we have a chance to see the handsome production again now, in revival at Boston Opera House. On opening night Misa Kuranaga danced the two-faced Swan Queen, partnered by guest artist Gonzalo Garcia from New York City Ballet. The evening was long and a bit stodgy, but that’s not uncommon for this high-Russian ballet from 1895.

There’s still a public devoted to Swan Lake. The first of its assets is Tchaikovsky’s music. The waltzes and meditations of the great score must be as recognizable as the purple lights on the Zakim bridge. Not that the audience at the Opera House looked like a bunch of rockers, but it wasn’t all blue-haired ladies either. Even the hippest of us can succumb to a deep longing for harmony, lush orchestration, and magic.

Another asset is the production. Boston’s Swan Lake has gorgeous costumes and sets by Robert Perdziola. Aside from a couple of bloopers like the giggle-inducing fake fog that blankets the floor at the beginning of Acts II and IV, the evening is a visual spectacle on a scale only possible on a big stage.

Swan Lake isn’t noted for its plot, which can have different psychological or cultural implications. Various productions have signaled a certain democratic tendency in the realm of Prince Siegfried, but Nissinen’s population is thoroughly aristocratic. There are no peasants or jolly villagers celebrating the prince’s birthday. Everyone is clad in fine fabrics and embroidery. Even the swans’ white tutus are made with detailed craftsmanship.

The other big reason for Swan Lake‘s durability is the dancing, which shows off classical ballet’s diverse specialties. The principals and some of the guests do the most demanding of classical steps. The corps de ballet (the swans) express the virtuosity of ensemble dancing. And the visiting guests at the birthday celebration represent several varieties of “character” dancing from the far reaches of the empire: ballet adaptations of Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, and Polish national dances.

After a provocative Prologue, Nissinen follows the standard scenario. Swan Lake and most of the Russian and French classics in contemporary repertory are composites, assembled from steps and stagings handed down the generations by company ballet masters. Additions and adjustments are made to suit each occasion. There’s no way to establish what the essential Swan Lake is, or Sleeping Beauty or Giselle. But we gain an idea of each of them from written accounts and from seeing them redone by many different companies.

I hadn’t seen the current Boston Swan Lake before, and if I didn’t know the ballet I’d have been led off the trail. In Nissenen’s Prologue we see a bunch of gentry carousing at an open-air gathering. Added vignettes take place fairly often during the overtures of old ballets, as if the presenters don’t think the audience can sit still and merely listen to the music.

Before you can sort out the people in this little scene, a stranger appears. Lasha Khozashvili slashes through with big jumps and a glittering black costume. As the others flee, he seizes a girl and drags her off by one leg. An unfortunate reminder of the child abductions we hear about all too often on the news, it’s meant to foretell the kidnapping of Odette by the evil magician Rothbart. If I take this scene at its word, it makes me wonder why Rothbart seized this girl and, off-stage, turned her into the Swan Queen who became the treacherous Odile. This might be the back-story of a very different ballet.

Once the first act gets going, we’re back at the palace and the plot proceeds as expected. The prince’s mum sweeps in to give him his birthday present. By the way, she admonishes him, it’s time to choose a bride. He submits to this but looks unhappy. When the second act begins, he dances to an introspective musical number. Garcia didn’t establish why the prince felt this way about being commanded to marry, but his dancing in this scene was almost languorous, with lofty jumps and curving arms. In the rest of the ballet, he would be a stalwart if clueless lover.

Next thing you know, a flock of swans emerges, head first, out of that fog blanket. Garcia is dumbstruck by their leader, Kuranaga, and falls in love with her right away. She reciprocates, though she’s afraid of him at first.

Jillian Barrell, Maria Alvarez, Diana Albrecht, and Corina Gill in Mikko Nissinen's Swan Lake; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Jillian Barrell, Maria Alvarez, Diana Albrecht, and Corina Gill in Mikko Nissinen’s “Swan Lake.” Photo Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet.

One reason the Swan Queen is considered a great role is that the ballerina has to play two different women, Odette the captive swan with a vulnerable heart, and Odile the seducer who tricks the prince into betraying his real love. In some productions these are played by two dancers, but Kuranaga pulled it all off beautifully.

During the romantic duets in the “white” acts (II and IV), she metaphorically melted in Garcia’s grasp, dissolving from a series of fast turns into a sudden backbend with her arms flung out. The flashy choreography in Act III calls for supported embraces where she has to switch from femme fatale to a simulation of the lakeside virgin. During the famous 32 fouettés (fast turns with one leg whipping out), she threw her arms up in triumph.

The minute Odile gets Siegfried to propose, Odette appears in a reproachful vision and the Black Swan exits the palace with her protector/father Rothbart. Next you see the swan chorus grieving over their leader’s fate. A repentant Siegfried appears; there’s a brief battle with Rothbart, who expires in the fog. Odette runs into the lake and the desolate Siegfried soon follows her.

Jonathan McPhee led the orchestra in some eccentric tempi, attenuating the phrase almost to extinction at the start of some slow passages. This device, I thought, was meant to make a big contrast later in the number, when Tchaikovsky and the dance speeded up. Instead of a musical contrast, McPhee, a usually sympathetic conductor, had the dancers working hard to stay with him and each other. Kuranaga could handle it, but the ideal of perfect unison in the corps was blurred.

Beginning Friday, Swan Lake will be alternating with Boston Ballet’s program of contemporary works, Mirrors, until the end of May.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.

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