As the apotheosis of classical ballet, Swan Lake has captivated audiences for more than a century. With its achingly poignant Tchaikovsky score and its resonant themes of the transformative power of love and the power of memory, accompanied by images of white tutu’ed ballerinas in swan-like formations, for many Swan Lake is the definitive ballet.
As frequently as this ballet is performed, nothing about producing Swan Lake is easy or ordinary. The Washington Ballet, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2019, just tackled its second production of this epitome of ballets. Under the company’s founder, the late Mary Day, it developed as a small chamber-sized troupe specializing in 20th-century contemporary ballet. Without the breadth or depth of a large troupe of classically trained dancers, Swan Lake wasn’t an option for the company until artistic director Septime Webre, who took the helm from Day, staged a Swan Lake coup in 2015. Webre’s production attracted worldwide notice for featuring Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack as the first African American Odette and Siegfried in a major company.
Under the direction of retired American Ballet Theatre ballerina Julie Kent, The Washington Ballet’s second production of Swan Lake — lovingly and carefully staged with the assistance of Victor Barbee, the company’s associate artistic director (and Kent’s husband) — had been planned for 2020, but the pandemic halted performances.
Ballet lovers would likely call The Washington Ballet’s latest Swan Lake, which runs through Sunday, February 13, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, respectable, if uneven. The demands on the ballerina, who plays the dual role of Odette, the Swan Queen, and Odile, her evil imposter, are akin to playing Hamlet — outsized. On Thursday, the opening night cast featured Eun Won Lee, a ballerina with imperious technical abilities, among them clean and precise footwork and a purity of line, making her an obvious choice and Kent favorite. Yet the challenges of playing Odette demand more than technical excellence. Odette must reveal her soulful side, but also her longing and her hesitancy. She stands at the helm of a band of women like her cursed to be swans by day and humans at night. Their abode? A lake filled with her own mother’s tears. The only way to release the curse is a pure declaration of true and forever love.
The ballet opens at Prince Siegfried’s castle — in this production not the grandest, but a stately edifice with imposing steps that cramp the Eisenhower Theater stage. The opening celebratory atmosphere of the ballet — Siegfried has come of age and friends and courtiers arrive at the castle grounds to celebrate. Yet here he’s not the most popular of princes, his entourage, hangers-on, and friends are few and the stage feels far less busy and filled than in many productions. The Act One pas de trois featuring Ayano Kimura and Ashley Murphy-Wilson along with Ariel Martinez displayed precision and technical facility and allowed each dancer a moment to shine.
As Siegfried, Gian Carlo Perez captures that wavering moment between boy and man, uncertain of how he can take the next step and choose a bride and his desire for a boys’ night out – in this case hunting by the lakeside. Sona Kharatian, one of the company’s senior dancers, portrays his mother with dignity and high expectations — yet seems too young for the role, even clad in heavy brocades. Some of the most natural moments of the evening are those between mother and son, when he turns to her with an “oh, Mom” look or when he seeks her comfort. Perez displays his finesse and ballon — ability to jump with ease — and as a partner, he’s unfailing.
Lee and Perez frequently dance together, yet their partnership felt surprisingly bereft of electricity and passion. Lee projects a cool and calm presence on stage — I’d say more of an ice princess than a hot-blooded dancer — so that first meeting between Siegfried and Odette in Act Two takes a while to warm up. Lee is far more reserved than many of my own past favorites in the role, among them Gillian Murphy, Nina Ananiashvili, and the gorgeous Russian-trained Natalia Markova.
As woman-turned-swan, Lee, alas, is more human than swan-like. Among the edifying choreographic moments in the ballet, here Kent and Barbee draw from the Petipa/Ivanov 1895 version the wing and bird-like arm gestures, undulating from the shoulders effortlessly and magnificently through to the fingertips. Lee, alas, doesn’t initiate from deep in the scapula, thus the arm-torso connection is not as evident, and her Odette finds less expression in the torso and shoulder girdle — ballet folks would call it epaulement.
In the climactic third act, as Odile, the sinister Black Swan meant to lead Siegfried astray, Lee uses her icy demeanor to advantage. Her brilliant and brittle technique is meant to mesmerize, and here Perez as Siegfried is completely taken in, vowing his love for the wrong woman — and dooming his true love to an eternity as a swan. It’s an exacting and technically difficult set of sequences of high-powered precise leaps, balances, and turns — featuring applause-garnering fouettes, whipping turns on one leg — that Lee pulls off without a blink. And behind her, whispering in her ear, lanky Stephen Nakagawa uses his stature to embody an imposing Von Rothbart, the sorcerer who cursed Odette.
Act Three is also filled with a series of European cultural dances representing Spain, Hungary, Poland, and Italy — think of them as postcards from abroad, recalling that when the ballet was cerated in St. Petersburg 125 years ago, these locales seemed exotic. Each of these lively variations was well-performed, but again, the smaller stage space lent a less celebratory air to the act yet also felt more intimate.
In recreating this Swan Lake, Kent called on Russian ballet scholar Natalie Rouland, who dug into the history of the iconic work and drew from archival notations from the Harvard Theatre Collection and Russian librettos at the St. Petersburg Theatre Library. With these historic gleanings and the body-to-body legacy of the Petipa and Ivanov choreographies, The Washington Ballet’s production feels notably authentic and even includes a few surprises. Among them, in Act Four, in addition to the corps de ballet of 18 white swans, an additional six cygnets, clad in gray feathery tutus accompany their grown sister swans. As well, the beginning of this final act felt far brisker and bouncier than many versions, though I’m not certain if that was a musical change or just tempos. And, while the corps de ballet danced valiantly striving for uniformity, it was not always attainable. Blame it on the pandemic pause, when dancers couldn’t work together in the studio, or the small company roster with roles filled out by second-company members, but the ideal of a group of 18 dancers balancing, swaying, and even breathing in absolute unison hasn’t quite been attained.
Throughout the storytelling through ballet, mime was keenly articulate — not always the case for American companies — but Washington’s dancers have put much care and attention to conveying the dramatic meanings thus furthering the plot with ease. The ballet, which clocks in at a solid two hours and 45 minutes, was accompanied by a live orchestra led by conductor Charles Barker. The sets, from Ballet West in Utah, were serviceable and avoided outlandish updates or changes to the libretto, although they did feel tight on the Eisenhower stage.
With a mostly satisfying, if not exceptional, production under her belt, Julie Kent continues to mold The Washington Ballet into something that more closely resembles large mainstream repertory companies, particularly Kent’s former home base, American Ballet Theatre. The question arises, though, with the resources and national stature of The Kennedy Center, where at least one Swan Lake lands every year, does Washington need its own swan-filled production?
Running time: About two hours 45 minutes with two intermissions.
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