Third time was not a charm…

20 Nov

The third installment of Swan Lake Month spotlights a supposedly special one, the performance of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn with the Vienna State Opera.  Theirs is a legendary partnership and from what I can find, this Swan Lake, along with a production of Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Ballet are the only commercially available full length recordings starring them.  There are a few more videos of various pas de deux that offer glimpses into the depth of their partnership, but the emotional involvement of a grand pas de deux just isn’t the same if you don’t get to see the context from which it was born.

Now I’m no Swan Lake connoisseur, but I really don’t think I liked this one.  I wanted to, because after all it is Fonteyn/Nureyev but there was a lot going on that didn’t sit well with my personal preferences.  This staging had choreography by Nureyev himself, and it should come as no surprise that this too would be the story of Prince Siegfried.  However, I think Nureyev took it just a wee little bit too far.  First of all, this was quite the hack job of Tchaikovsky’s score, which is fairly common for Swan Lake but there were some things that were just bizarre choices.  For example (and the easiest for me to pick out) is the use of the supplementary Pas de Deux music.  The pas de deux itself is used in Act III as intended, for Siegfried and Odile, however both variations and the coda are used in Act I, with the female variation being performed by an unnamed character at Siegfried’s party, the male variation being performed by Siegfried and the coda as a pas de cinq with Siegfried.  If it feels like I’m writing Siegfried as every other word, it’s because I pretty much am…Nureyev may as well have called his staging: SIEGFRIED! (and a swan). The juggling around of music is forgivable because like I said, it’s common in Swan Lake to sort of pick and choose…but while not a glaring flaw it wasn’t exactly favorable (I did however appreciate some of Nureyev’s choreography here, like in the female variation he has the dancer do some work in épaulée).

However, watching this Swan Lake has reinforced what I’ve long known to be true about Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; it is by far the most harmonious and precise interpretation of the music.  In fact, other than a few moments I wasn’t terribly impressed by Nureyev’s choreography.  While staying true to classical structure, I felt a certain lack of phrasing and smooth transitions between the phrases.  There were a lot of pauses in certain poses and not always musically accented…it felt like the choreography just wasn’t finding the right space in the score.  Speaking of space, there wasn’t much of the physical variety either; the Vienna State Opera corps de ballet was incredibly cramped and could barely keep from bumping into each other.

However, Nureyev is a compelling dancer.  I found his makeup garish (heavy on the blue eye shadow!) and while I understand the need for some exaggeration in stage makeup, it appeared that this was a version made for film, thus offering closer views.  As a “made for film” version, there was no audience and possibly no live audio track (though the faint scuffing of shoes could be heard if there was no music playing).  Still, there was an odd, slightly boyish charm about Nureyev paired with an interesting technique; I didn’t feel Nureyev’s technique was the purest and most refined—in fact, maybe even a little stiff—but there was a rawness to it that drew me in.  Similarly, it was Fonteyn’s emotional rawness that I enjoyed in her performance as Odette/Odile.  There was something genuinely magical about the way she would even tilt her head to rest on Siegfried’s shoulder, or when in the fourth act, Siegfried rushes in and ruffles the feathers of every swan until he finally finds his Odette, a heavy-hearted mix of grief and joy.  I also loved when she entered as Odile in Act III, she gave this perfectly timed shifty glance to Von Rothbart, a fleeting cue to let us know she’s an imposter before she begins acting like Odette.

As far as some differences are concerned, there is a pretty substantial truncation of soloist roles, like Von Rothbart, who essentially doesn’t dance at all.  Also, there is no Benno and even the maidens from which Siegfried is initially to choose his bride are lumped into one dance with no distinctions between them.  Act III becomes a traffic jam of divertissements, with the maidens, a few of the national dances (which now serve absolutely no purpose) and then the Black Swan pas de deux.  An interesting choice in Act III though was the omission of Odette—it’s Siegfried who gradually comes to the realization that Odile and Von Rothbart have duped him, again highlighting Siegfried’s internal dialogue.  Act II was mostly untouched (I think Nureyev added…surprise, a solo for Siegfried), and it seems most productions tend to leave the Ivanov-Gorsky choreography alone…I suppose it has the auspicious “no touchie” aura.  Nureyev’s Act IV, however, contains a strange ending in which Siegfried dies in a flood, unleashed by Von Rothbart by the lake.  It’s awfully melodramatic, and Nureyev was quite indulgent in his death, dark fabric billowing around him as the deadly water.  Each time I thought he was submerged and drowning, he came up again, still fighting and he even manages to cling on to a tree to see Odette flying away as a swan, before finally drowning.  It wasn’t an ending I found particularly satisfying or even all that tragic…but I also had the issue of trying to rationalize in geological terms how a lake could violently flood like that (conclusions included the breaking of a natural dam in what would have had to have been a fairly mountainous region, the breaching of a crater wall at a lake that formed in an extinct volcano, or a jökulhlaup…had Nureyev thought to set his Swan Lake near a glacier).

All in all, probably my least favorite of the three so far.  Perhaps my expectations were too high given the circumstances of a Fonteyn/Nureyev recording but while there were some wonderful moments but for various reasons I felt disengaged with the ballet as a whole.  I know looking for logic is somewhat futile in a classical ballet, but this was just too indulgent in Nureyev’s fancies…I’m all for expanding certain roles if necessary but not without purpose.  I have a feeling this probably isn’t on the top of the list when it comes to a woman’s favorite Swan Lake.  I suppose it’s a good one for the die-hard Fonteyn/Nureyev fan, and they have a truly genuine chemistry that shines in their pas de deux, but I suspect they’ve been better in other filmed performances.

 

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2 Responses to “Third time was not a charm…”

  1. Bead 109 November 20, 2010 at 2:49 am #

    Okay, I thought I was the only one completely distracted by trying to figure out how exactly one has a flood in a lake in a forest!!!

    This one isn’t my fave either, Nureyev liked to take liberties, sometimes it worked, other times not so much. I think I am drawn to the Nureyev work partially out of curiosity. Obviously he was a great dancer, lots of charisma, interesting point of view, etc. etc…. but I think I still wonder what make him such a BIG BIG deal in the grand scheme of things. In context, of course, his life makes for interesting reading, so there is always that. I think I like to watch him to try and figure him out more, his incredible ability to influence so much so that it’s still felt today. Being such a POB fan, its impossible not to acknowledge that he really figures heavily into where they are as a company today.

    • youdancefunny November 21, 2010 at 1:49 am #

      I think Nureyev was really one to surrender himself to roles…so regardless of the quality of choreography, he always had that!

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