Resistance is futile

28 Nov

You know I love the Royal Ballet, so of course I have to include at least one of their productions for Swan Lake Month, in this case the one featuring Natalia Makarova as Odette/Odile and Anthony Dowell as Siegfried.  Right off the top I think it’s important to note that a Makarova performance as Odette is quintessential; it’s her thing and she does not disappoint in this DVD.  It’s one of those performances where you don’t know why or how, but you can feel how much she loves that role.  Of course, Anthony Dowell is no slouch and they had a wonderful, memorable partnership—I would even go as far to say that this was the most memorable Odette/Siegfried I’ve seen thus far.  I would also say that this production is probably my favorite of the classically oriented versions of Swan Lake I’ve seen as well.

The structure is pretty standard fare for a Swan Lake, beginning with Siegfried’s birthday (though this one is outdoors…an unusual, but refreshing choice) with plenty of hearty, festive dancing.  When Anthony Dowell enters, he flashes a devilish grin to his subjects and it’s one of those utterly charming, handsome heartbreaker smiles and all you can think is “oh, Anthony…” and heave a heavy sigh.  We all know Siegfried screws up, but as soon as Dowell smiled the way he did, I just knew this going to be a Soviet-era happy ending.  Sometimes I worry I think I see that smile in real life and think I might be going insane, but that’s another story…anyway, the choreography is nice (definitely some Ashton in there) and I’d like to point out that in the coda for the pas de trois, one of the women ends a diagonal series of jumps with FOUR, yes FOUR entrechat six in a row, which is something quite common in choreography for men, so not only does that deserve a high-five but it also means the ladies out there can’t rest on their laurels when it comes to those nasty little entrechat six!  Meanwhile, that wasn’t the only challenging of the status quo in male/female specific choreography as later on in Act III, in a male pas de deux one of the men does a saut de chat with his arms in third, which in some schools of thought could be considered a vile emasculation of the male danseur.  Well, maybe vile emasculation is exaggerating a bit, but it sounds funny…anyway, Act I ends with Siegfried’s solo, and I kid you not when I say Dowell’s performance in it was quite possibly the most perfect bit of dancing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Act II is again a “no touchie” zone, with the only major difference I could see being a moment where Siegfried’s hunting party actually appears on stage and they’re about to shoot at the flock of swans and Siegfried comes in to stop them.  This of course comes after Siegfried and Odette’s flawless, first pas de deux.  When Makarova enters, she does the most beautiful arm movements, the most luxurious backwards arches of her back and she even makes a simple lunge sing.  Together, I love the way Makarova and Dowell shade the characters because it isn’t entirely love at first sight; Dowell’s Siegfried is bewildered for most of the pas de deux, recognizing the fact that oh, he just saw a swan turn into a woman and doesn’t really give into love until later.  Similarly, Makarova holds back a little as a frightened and timid Odette, running from Siegfried until the end of the first pas de deux where she lets her curiosity take over.  This is of course, when Von Rothbart enters in his strigine glory…well, at least it should have gone something like that but I wasn’t a huge fan of the Von Rothbart owl costume.  In fact, it’s probably my only major criticism because I felt the design made him look more like a pterodactylic peacock (for the record, the word used to describe a peacock-like animal is “pavonine”).  It’s also unfortunate that Von Rothbart isn’t much of a dancing role (his massive wings being so unwieldy and all) but the focus of Act II, Odette and Siegfried’s romantic first meeting is tender, which is aided by the fact that Makarova works to a snail pace tempo.  I actually think rubato is often abused today, with many dancers using slower tempos but without purpose.  I’m not a fan of slowing the tempo just for the sake of slowing the tempo—it has to be done if the dancer feels it will allow them to add something to the character, and not just be seen as additional time to show off an extension.  I had no problems with Makarova’s tempo, because she works it brilliantly.

What also makes Makarova’s slower adagio more successful is the contrast it provides when she appears as Odile in Act III.  She actually uses faster tempi like in the Black Swan variation, which makes quite a difference.  Makarova’s Odile is very business-like; she enters, she seduces, she laughs maniacally when Siegfried realizes what’s going on and she leaves.  It’s the complete opposite of say, Patrice Bart’s Swan Lake, where Odile is able to seduce Siegfried in a much different manner.  I forgot to write this in my review, but in that staging Odile lures Siegfried by coming close enough for him to get a glance, but then one of Von Rotbart’s other maidens will get in his way.  This happens I think four times and by the fourth time Siegfried is blinded with frustration and the thought that Odile could be an imposter doesn’t even cross his mind.  The Royal Ballet, on the other hand takes the direct approach and no qualms are made as to Odile’s true identity.  Makarova is marvelous as Odile, spicing things up a little bit with a little more élan and a little determination to get through those fouettés.  Every Odile I’ve seen thus far has done thirty-two single fouettés, which doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, thirty-two singles may very well be harder than throwing in some doubles because if you do a double pirouette you get to pull in and just worry about holding yourself up, but doing two singles in the same span of time means having to work through the foot, plié, rond de jambe and spring back up to relevé again.  That’s a lot of work. (Side note: the national dances are pretty typical but the Italian dance is awesome and gets tremendous, well deserved applause)

Finally, it’s time for Act IV; reconciliation, suicide pact, and happily ever after (life).  What I loved about this act was that again, we’re made to wait for it.  Odette doesn’t forgive Siegfried immediately and the act of forgiveness and the apology, are danced out.  Sometimes these redemptive moments in ballet can be reduced to a hurried set of mimed gestures immediately followed by the pretty pas de deux, rather than sustaining the emotions throughout.  With Makarova/Dowell, you get to see the whole process unfold.  Well, I suppose you would REALLY see it if I posted the clip:

All in all, I’m sold on this Swan Lake.  Makarova is the epitome of the cygnine (I’m totally about these animal adjectives today!) and if anybody asks why I would add this to my collection I’d say “Anthony Dowell made me do it.”  Nobody could resist that Act I smile.

5 Responses to “Resistance is futile”

  1. Karena November 30, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    I pull this one out just to watch Dowell’s solo sometimes. Sigh, drool. I have to say that for me the only disappointment (besides Rothbart’s costume, but hey, it’s the early ’80’s…) is the happy ending. I think the ballet is much more poignant when the parties in it are left with the consequences of their actions. The version that PNB does (or did, don’t know if it will change under Boal) has Odette turned back into a swan for forever, and Siegfried left alone and struck with the realization that he not only lost the woman he loved, but through his actions, robbed her of her only chance to escape the swan spell situation. It’s quite heartbreaking.

    • youdancefunny November 30, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

      I’m inclined to agree…the Soviet happy endings where the lovers live makes the ballet obsolete.

      Meanwhile, Von Rothbart costumes just seem to be a nemesis across the board. The Royal Swedish Ballet I liked, and others that are similar are okay but there are some truly ghastly (in the bad way) ones.

    • avesraggiana September 27, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

      I didn’t perceive it as a happy ending at all. Yes, Odette and Siegfried ended up together but only in an afterlife. They both had to drown themselves in sacrifice, not only in order to be together but also to free the other enchanted maidens and to vanquish Rothbart. Their victory and their “Happily Ever After” came at a huge cost to their human, earthly existence.

      The “Happy Ending” I really object to is the post-Soviet era one which the Russian companies still vexingly insist on maintaining. I don’t know how many live Kirov/Maryinsky Swan Lakes I’ve watched where the power of the ballet keeps rising all evening long, only to have it completely scuttled by the Prince lunging at Rothbart and ripping his wing off! It’s the stupidest, most embarrasing piece of stage business I’ve ever had to sit through.

      There’s no call for this kind of Happy Ending. The ballet must have a tragic ending. Tchaikovsky envisioned it, his librettist created it, and the music positively screams for it!

      Just my two cents.

  2. avesraggiana September 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Great summation of the Makarova/Dowell Swan Lake. I’ve got a review posted on, if you care to read it some time. This particular Swan Lake has remained my favourite since the first time I watched it on VHS tape (gasp!) almost thirty years ago. I was still very young at the time and i didn’t fully realize the greatness that was unfurling before me on the TV screen at the time. One live Makarova/Dowell Swan Lake with ABT, and many, many Swan Lake videos AND live performances spanning many, many years later, this taped performance remains my favourite. Its dramatic impact and its sexiness are undeniable. Blithely tossed off double and triple fouettes and six o’clock penchees by younger and stronger ballerinas notwithstanding, Makarova remains a knockout and unparalleled as Odette/Odile.

    I could go on and on about all the Makarova-isms that I’ve come to love so much in this video but I’ll restrict my comments to two, both relating to the entrance you mentioned. Makarova does a run-run-run, grand jete! Which gives the impression of a magnificent bird alighting on a lakeshore! Today’s Russian ballerinas do this weird walk-walk-walk-stork step, pique arabesque, bourree, a split jete, followed by a flopping over in apparent expiration over the front leg – like an ungainly albatross that’s just been shot down. It’s a real momentum killer for me, and not at all dramatic.

    The second moment happens shortly after Makarova’s grand jete entrance; she does her last pique arabesque downstage left, is startled by the prince and throws her hands up to her face. You can read her whole frightened, heartbreaking reaction, from the tips of her stuttering pointe shoes in sous-sus to the top of her shimmering tiara. Her fear transmits through her WHOLE body and it registers so that the whole audience can see it all the way to the rafters. It’s really a theatrically arresting moment and like you said, another little but enchanting manifestation of just how much Makarova loved and lived the role of Odette/Odile.

    Keep up the wonderful writing.

    • youdancefunny November 30, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

      Thanks for your comment and insights! I love your point about Makarova’s jeté entrance and it’s now something I’m going to look for in Swan Lakes from now on.

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