Misty and the Swans: American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake Matters Now More Than Ever

The sun set pink and purple over the Potomac, where nestled on the opposite shore sate the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. American Ballet Theatre (ABT), official ballet company of the United States of America, graced the nation’s capital with Kevin McKenzie’s staging of the classic, Swan Lake. As the production notes cite, the Swan Lake known to audiences the world over, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov enjoyed its first performance on January 27, 1895 in St. Petersburg, Russia, with Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani as the dual role of Odette/Odile. On the same date in January 2017, 122 years after the full-length premier, the role of Odette/Odile was performed by Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to become a principal dancer in a major ballet company. Given the current political climate in the United States, her appearance on the Kennedy Center stage cannot be ignored, and yet the discussions of the quality of her dancing often becomes  secondary to her historic significance to her art form. Let us hope both will continue to be the topic of discussion.

            So, too, popular culture has dampened our ability to appreciate Odette, the White Swan role. Perhaps Hollywood’s to blame for the emphasis on the role of Odile, or the Black Swan, at the hands of the 2010 film of the same name that over-emphasized the dark qualities of the part, as a way to present the often misunderstood ballet world on the whole, in service to sensationalism and Oscar nods. The film presented the role of the Black Swan as more difficult emotionally than the White, and yet, it’s precisely the vulnerable qualities of the White Swan that seem to be more elusive to communicate beyond just the technical marvels of the ballerina herself. Let us say that with Ms. Copeland, it is the purity of her classical line and the emotion by which she imbues the choreography of the White Swan that allows us to thrill at the bravura and deceit, of her dark counterpart.  As her name evokes, Misty appears as near aspiration, wisps of classical choreography that look effortless, pliant, and lovely. When she returns to the stage as the White Swan, it is the wilted hopes of Odette that completes our portrait of the ill-fated Swan Princess, and it is this part of the dual role that makes us care about what has just transpired in the Great Hall.  It creates the tension and drama that anchors all great storytelling, whether by voice, page, or, as it is in classical ballet, through the body. While so much has been focused on Odile, and her fouetté turns (originally the hallmark of Legnani’s Cinderella and not Odile, perhaps the least interesting part of the ballet), the magic of the dual role as well as the grounding of the story can only be found in a satisfying and, ultimately trickier to present, Odette. It’s Odette’s arabesques, which must strike the balance between strength and delicacy, that inspire awe.

            Upon watching Swan Lake again, it’s impossible to ignore how much of the plot hinges on how men hold power and sway over women. Odette’s plight hinges on a spell by the evil sorcerer, von Rothbart, but the reason for casting his spell upon her is only hinted in the prologue and hardly ever explained in program notes. How quickly and easily we audience members simply accept that von Rothbart would be both capable and driven to such an act, and one must wonder what that says about us. In ABT’s version, he takes two distinct forms, one as a monstrous-looking creature, the other a handsome if slightly too slick couturier.  In his monster incarnation, von Rothbart looks reminiscent of depictions of Point Pleasant, West Virginia’s Mothman: winged, creepy, but just enough human to make him truly terrifying. The younger, winsome version captures the attention of the Queen and tempts her son, the Prince Siegfried, once enraptured by the purity and gentleness of Odette with his own daughter Odile. We can view Odile as another pawn of this powerful man, and Siegfried as capricious enough not to intuit the difference. If done right, the audience bears the weight of dramatic irony, knowing what Siegfried and company cannot. Earlier, in the first lake scene, Odette protects von Rothbart from Siegfried’s crossbow, knowing that if he is destroyed, she will also perish. The exotic and beautiful Odette’s fate becomes tied to the evil and powerful man, or the young and impulsive prince. As the program notes aptly explain, with the coming of dawn, “Odette is compelled by the spell to return to her guise as a swan.” Freedom in her true form is fleeting, and even dangerous.

            Copeland’s abilities span beyond technical in the role, and it’s in her Odette, who must navigate between the swan and woman, between luck and ultimately her own free will that captures one’s full attention. Odile has but a single act, and Odette two, with Act II filled with the challenge of not only technique, but the complicated tasks of mime and dancing full of vulnerability, grace, and nobility despite her fate to return to her swan form. I have seen many Odette/Odile renditions over the last thirty or so years, and Copeland’s ranks as among the most satisfying because of her ability to bring Odette’s vulnerability to the fore. Without it, a four-act ballet starts to feel like a long slog into the lake of tears. In ABT’s effort, the time whisks by like so many spirited emboîtés by the swan corps.

            As a new presidential administration takes shape not far from the Kennedy Center’s stage, and the fate of federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, one of the first supporters of American Ballet Theatre, hangs in the balance, a ballet about the fate of an exquisite creature of grace in the crosshairs of the easily deceived and the terrible plot of the self-indulgent—to use one’s power to capture and manipulate another can at best be seen as self-indulgent, although it can also be seen as much, much worse—presents us with an over one-hundred year old masterpiece whose story might be more relevant today than ever before. Things in the kingdom where Siegfried reigns as prince are not as they seem, cloaked in disguise and intrigue. While Odile might be the incarnation of “alternative fact,” we have no knowledge if she participates in her father’s plot willingly. We might infer that being betrothed to a prince might suit her interests, but we get little of her beyond her father’s intended use of her to suit his own desires in thwarting Odette’s escape from his spell.  In this staging, Odette is the first to cast herself into the lake, so that in death she can achieve the love forbidden to her in life. Fitting that Siegfried follows the brave Odette, who knows that only her death will vanquish von Rothbart’s spell. Let us hope that other spells might be broken without such a sacrifice.

            While Copeland brought to life the plight of Odette, her partner, Herman Cornejo danced with the regal bearing of a Prince, and sold us the ignorance of a young man’s youth and inexperience in Act III, falling for the counterpart with the same young passion as Odette in the forest. At curtain call, his friendly kiss to Miss Copeland reminds us that chemistry on stage is the effort of both, for which we are allowed to fall into the fictive dream more easily. A discussion of this night’s performance could not be complete without discussing the effort of Jeffrey Cirio, who, as Siegfried’s friend Benno allowed us comic relief, as well as tours en l’air landed in perfect fifth position, perfectly blending charisma and technique.  Cirio may be a principal dancer, but at only 25 year-old, one can’t help but wonder the trajectory of his career, and eagerly await the opportunity to see more of him in other roles.

            So too, the ABT corps de ballet must be commended. When I take those not familiar with ballet to a production like Swan Lake, it’s always with a discussion of the corps de ballet, because the quality of the corps is the quality of the company. And this is what makes ABT exceptional. Watching this swan corps, one feels the precision of an army, the grace of the birds they portray, and sense of the many that make the one that is uniquely their own. Bravo, ABT, for assembling such ranks of dancers. Few companies possess a corps de ballet equal to this one. In McKenzie’s staging, we watch the diamond formation of this lovely assemblage, bodies bowed in white elegance towards the rising rays of the sun, no longer supplicants to the dark of night, a moment akin to prayer and resurrection. That such a group of extraordinary women artist end the ballet in such light and triumph is truly to imagine the glowing dawn of a new day. 

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