more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Swan Lake, or: Pearls Before Swine

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Last night, I had the very good fortune to see the Boston Ballet’s production of Swan Lake – at almost the end of its two-week run.  Swan Lake has long since been my favorite ballet, but this was my first time seeing it in person.  I have some Thoughts about the entire experience – but I’ll begin with the good.

I am very loyal to the Boston Ballet.  Considering how much smaller it is than some of the other ballet companies here in the U.S., it nevertheless feels exactly as grand and elegant as a great ballet company should.  Its production of The Nutcracker is fun and lovely, as enchanting for children as it is for adults (take it from me: I’ve seen it several times in both states); this past spring, I saw its Cinderella, and it was absolutely gorgeous: charming, whimsical, romantic, everything it should be.  Later this winter, I hope very much to see The Lady of the Camellias (alas, not the Marguerite et Armand of Fonteyn/Nureyev or Guillem/Le Riche; I’m sure I’ll manage just fine, however).  I tend to be less excited by more contemporary dance – but I trust the Boston Ballet, so who knows.

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Swan Lake was, for this traditionalist, nearly perfect.  It adhered very closely to Ivanov and Petipa’s choreography, with only a few consolidations/clarifications by Mikko Nissinen, Boston Ballet director.  The sets and costumes, by Robert Perdziola, were fresh takes on the originals: lighter, airier, but unmistakably rooted in the Russianized fairy-tale version of Germany audiences at the Maryinsky Theatre saw in 1895.  Odile’s costume, especially, was breathtaking – the traditional black tutu was overlaid with audacious, jewel-like sparkles in the stark spotlight; an extremely effective contrast to Odette’s soft, swan-like white tutu, lit with blue moonlight.

Boston Ballet Swan Lake

Nissinen also adhered to the traditional structure, and its tragic ending. (Spoiler alert, sorry.) I usually feel cheated by a happy ending to Swan Lake, so I was delighted to see Odette drown herself, followed by Siegfried, while all her swan maiden friends sank in dying-swan submission in the misty (dry ice) lake.  The music itself necessitates the sad finish, so it seems to me, and I’m glad Nissinen agrees.

As for the actual performance: Odette/Odile was danced by Lia Cirio, who was suitably frightened and fragile as Odette, fierce and flirtatious as Odile; Prince Siegfried was danced by Lasha Khozashvili, effectively conveying the prince’s youth, naïveté, and impulsiveness; and cruel Rothbart was danced by Yury Yanowsky, as seductive a counterpart to Siegfried as Odile is to Odette. (This compare/contrast was an especially clever touch by the Boston Ballet: often, Rothbart is like some sort of bat or moth, a frightening creature of the night.  Thematically, it’s all the more satisfying for him to be Siegfried’s dark shadow.  And, I mean, Yankowsky is pretty easy on the eyes.  That was some great casting.) The dozens of swans moved perfectly in sync, arraying themselves in the kinds of lines and formations that would have made Busby Berkeley shed a tear of joy.  The soloists and the corps de ballet, comprising Siegfried’s friends and royal court members, were engaging in the (somewhat abridged) divertissements.  Even though the production is near the end of its run, even though the dancers must surely be tired (especially with the aggressive run up to The Nutcracker, which is opening in a blink of an eye), the entire company danced at 100%.  I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t also highlight Jonathan McPhee, the Boston Ballet’s music director and conductor.  A ballet orchestra needs to keep a danceable tempo, something that may not be present in the music as it was originally written.  I know this score pretty well, so I was able to identify when the tempo accelerated or slowed down as necessary – all to serve the dancing – but McPhee never sacrificed any of Tchaikovsky’s grace, depth, expressiveness, pathos, brio – all those Tchaikovsky kinds of things.

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In short, it was a huge success, and I would encourage those of you in the Boston area to try to see it tonight or tomorrow, its last two days before all is swept away in preparation for Christmas fever.

That was all the good: the thing itself.  Unfortunately, there were other people there, and that is where my extreme annoyance sets in.  The good news for the Boston Ballet is that the Boston Opera House was packed.  I very much hope, for the sake of the company’s bottom line, that all performances have been similarly well attended.  The bad news is that it was packed to the gills with dreck.  While I’m no expert at ballet etiquette, I can apply some common sense and courtesy to the situation, and observe some simple rules: don’t talk, don’t take pictures (with FLASH, my god), don’t clap for every goddamn thing.  I was sitting in front of a couple that seemed to think it was necessary to comment on each feat performed by the dancers, on each bit of pantomime.  Based on the murmurs I heard around the theatre, I assume similar unnecessary conversations were happening elsewhere.

I’ve noticed this problem at movie theatres as well, and it annoys me there, certainly.  At the ballet, where there are real people on a stage, doing amazing, beautiful, torturous things with their bodies – things that require lifetimes of training and skill and sacrifice – it annoys and offends me to hear the incessant din of the vox pop.  We’ve grown so accustomed to watching things at home on our couches, in bed, on the train, on the toilet, that we seem to have forgotten how to behave in public.  Sure, theatre used to be a more communal, chatty experience.  It hasn’t been that way for a long time, however.  I think Wagner’s to blame/credit for that innovation: he didn’t want people distracting from his gesamtkunstwerk with their nattering and rustling and idiocy, so he redesigned the space of the theatre itself – forcing people to sit in the dark, looking only at his stage and hearing only his thunderous music.  I’m no fan of Wagner the person, but I subscribe enthusiastically to his idea for the theatre.  It’s that idea that is supposed to guide the way we act when we attend a ballet or an opera.  These are works of art that command respect.

Yes, I’m an old fuddy-duddy.  I’m worse than Wagner.  I don’t care.  It drives me up a wall to sit among a lot of idiots who don’t pause to consider, before they open their mouths or rustle their candy bags, how that action might disrupt the people performing the thing they’ve come to see (to say nothing of how it disrupts the irascible old coot next to them, who may or may not actually be a young urban professional in her twenties).

And so I beg of you: please keep going to the ballet.  Please keep supporting my favorite non-cinematic art form.  But please think about the best way to comport yourself.  Please consider the extraordinary skill you’re lucky enough to witness, and keep it to some well placed applause and oohs and aahs.

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2 comments on “Swan Lake, or: Pearls Before Swine

  1. wordpooh
    November 18, 2014

    Excellent review – very well written!

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This entry was posted on November 15, 2014 by and tagged , , , , .
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