Review: American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Swan Lake’ at The Kennedy Center

American Ballet Theatre Offers Magical Moments of Escapism

The grey cloud of uncertainty that hovers over all, especially dance, lifted last evening at The Kennedy Center Opera House, if only for a few hours. Back in Washington for its annual winter visit, the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) offered magical moments of escapism. Opening night was a heady dose of art, relevance and deep human connection, with live music as a bonus.

ABT turns 78 this year, which is a remarkable achievement no matter how you look at it. To establish a ballet company with no native ballet traditions is an amazing feat. To survive three quarters of a century while upholding a tradition of quality, is awe-inspiring. By an act of Congress, ABT has become America’s National Ballet Company, performing at The Kennedy Center annually since it opened in 1971. Let’s hope our government continues to support this heritage.


The swans from American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor).

These were my thoughts as Conductor Charles Barker lead The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in the familiar opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s score, hauntingly alive with joy and tragic sadness. The composer did not live to see the successfully re-choreographed version of the ballet performed in St. Petersburg in 1895. It is upon this artful revision that all subsequent productions down through the years have been based.

The staging of the American Ballet Theatre production is after the  Petipa/Ivanov choreography, re-staged (and streamlined) by ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. The lead roles last night were played by Hee Seo as Odette-Odile and Cory Stearns in the princely role of Siegfried. Martine Van Hamel, one of my favorite ABT swan queens from past seasons, appeared as the Queen Mother – a treat, indeed.

Unlike the heroines of Giselle, Coppelia and The Sleeping Beauty who have some relation to the real world, the Swan Queen is all magic, a creature of imagination, a princess of the night who glides on a lake born of her mother’s tears. It is because of the evil sorcerer, Von Rotbart (Patrick Ogle and Thomas Forster last night) that Odette is queen of the swans and Von Rotbart’s daughter Odile can beguile Prince Siegfried into believing that she is his true love.

The story is one of evil magic and tragic ignorance – much like our current universe is experiencing. However, the ballet ends with the love triumphs all or should we say trumps all. Yes, a fairy tale, but with hope and universal appeal.

Within the classical framework, the ballet creates a somber setting and spiritual mood for dance, unites the corps de ballet with the theme of the story, encourages strong virtuosity through the divertissements, the little skits or entertainment for the royal family, and establishes a rapport with the audience through sensitive partnering and grand technical feats.

ABT’s Swan Lake is a poetic dance drama and the sweetest moment comes at the end of the first act when the couple dances among the swans. Lev Ivanov’s choreography has been adjusted over the years to accommodate the ballerina. Last night Hee Seo danced beautifully in her soulful rendition – her delicate beating off the toe shoe against her ankle and the final falling into her lover’s arms. Sigh!

Hee Seo in Swan Lake from American Ballet Theatre. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

Cory Stearns is a gorgeous dancer. Tall, handsome (and princely), he knew when to soar and when to partner with grace and sensitivity. The roster of dancers change with the remaining six performances – tickets are sold out to see Misty Copeland.

The current crop of dancers appeared healthy, well-rehearsed and eager to please. As I watched ABT’s youthful Sarah Lane, Skylar Brandt, and Joseph Gorak perform the first act Pas de Trois, I couldn’t help but think of these dynamic dancers as shooting stars in the ballet heavens. Howard County’s April Giangeruso and Katherine Williams are just two of the several new stars (and soon-to-be-stars) currently dancing at The Kennedy Center throughout the run.

The lighting by Duane Schuler creates its own magic, and  Jack Brown’s sets and costumes added to the mystical illusion. Still, it was the dancing, especially in the first act and second acts, that transported us to a place of wonder. I can’t wait to take this journey again.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one 20 minute intermission.

American Ballet Theatre: Swan Lake plays through Sunday, January 29, 2017 at The American Ballet Theatre performing at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.


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