Behind the scenes at ABT’s ‘Swan Lake’

26 Jun

(Well, not literally behind the scenes as in backstage.)

There’s nothing like having the opportunity to observe the process that produces the final product and attending the dress rehearsal for American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake was pretty damn sweet. I purchased the incredibly inexpensive ticket through an exclusive deal for Mastercard holders, and first of all, the seats ended up being in the parterre section, which at the Metropolitan Opera House are the prime seats that cost way more than I could ever afford! So in addition to seeing how a high caliber ballet company rehearses, I also got to feel what it would be like to have buckets of money and splurge on the best that money can buy. Well, maybe quasi-best because I could have done without the tall lady in front of me (or the crabby one to her left), but I was too excited to be really bothered by it. Second, I got to share the experience with friends and readers, which—like Mastercard so often tells us—is something priceless. Lastly, as an added bonus, while Denise took a picture of Robin and I standing in front of the Swan Lake poster in front of the MET, David Hallberg was taking a picture of the Corsaire poster right behind us! David Hallberg! In street clothes!

Anyway, the average person may not know what a dress rehearsal looks like so I’ll try to paint a picture. The sets are of course up, though there is no full orchestra—only the conductor and pianist. Some of the dancers are in regular warm up clothes, some are half in costume, others in full costume. Lighting is more or less there, though the technicians fiddle with it from time to time to make sure everything is in working order. The artistic director and ballet mistress sit smack dab in the middle of the orchestra section, speaking into microphones to fine tune several details. Sometimes the action stops to correct an error, sometimes the show goes on. For ABT, pausing meant that on a few occasions they would switch the principal cast members briefly to give them an opportunity to find their bearings on the stage. For the most part, the audience saw the young pairing of Isabella Boylston and Daniil Simkin, set to make their debuts as Odette/Odile and Siegfried respectively on Wednesday, while Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes were listed to perform the fourth act.

Though the fabulousness overload was indeed a treat, what I found incredibly fascinating was the difference between the veterans and the newcomers. For Murphy/Gomes, they’ve done this rodeo a great many times and the experience shows. For Boylston/Simkin, the talent is all there but the maturity isn’t, though I don’t mean that to be interpreted negatively. It’s generally touted to be one of the ballet dancer’s greatest achievements to dance the lead in Swan Lake, and with it comes tremendous pressure from outside and within. There’s nothing heavier than bearing the weight of a historical tradition, because of the numerous responsibilities to uphold it. Rehearsal was really just business as usual with a couple of bumps along the road, so there’s nothing dramatic to report. I think it’s fair to expect that their debut may not be Earth-shattering, but these things take time and I’d venture to say that for the majority of dancers, their first Swan Lake is never the one they’re happiest with. Youth seems to be on their side too, because it definitely brings something fresh to a warhorse classic. After all, the easiest way to give Swan Lake a quick makeover is to simply put new dancers in it.

Inevitably, one of my favorite things about rehearsals is when things go wrong—though not “bad” wrong—like when they started to rehearse Act IV and Marcelo came out to find that Isabella was perched on the lakeside cliff as his Odette. Hilarity ensued when Marcelo went to get Daniil, who, already half out of costume was sure it was a mistake. Eventually Gillian showed up, and the image of two Odettes posing on the cliff, with two Siegfrieds laughing is one that will remain permanently etched in my memories. Now, about that cliff though…in many Swan Lakes any combination of Odette or Siegfried and both of the above will make a suicide jump into the lake, and it appeared as though it was in fact, Isabella and Daniil’s first time actually getting to do the fateful vault. Isabella seemed tentative—after all, dancers are used to landing on their feet so landing prone on a mat isn’t exactly a comfortable idea. Both she and Daniil made attempt after attempt, and while he played around with it, unafraid of a little silliness, it’s definitely harder for her because if his jump isn’t perfect, he can get away with it, but you know the swan’s dive is expected to look graceful. I suppose one need not look further than Marcelo’s dive, which has all the drama and passion a Swan Lake could handle.

Exhibit A:

(Photo ©Rosalie O’Connor)

However, where there’s a wrong, there’s always a right, and as an added bonus we were treated to Gillian and Marcelo’s white swan pas de deux, and a black swan pas de deux from Polina and David. Both couples were marvelous (the more I see of Gillian Murphy the more I like her), and I was in awe of Polina—the command she has over her technique is astonishing and I can’t wait to see her take on the full story for her Friday evening performance. Though there are still production elements and choreographic motifs that I disagree with throughout Kevin McKenzie’s staging, I do think his Act III is wonderful, and will provide a perfect atmosphere for any exceptional Odile like Polina. I’m also interested to see how Gillian has changed over the years since Swan Lake was filmed, as I think she was a bit rawer (yes, that’s a word, and yes, you totally said “rawr” in your head just now) at the time. Though I love her fearlessness, the preview she gave as Odette in the rehearsals were very promising that she has found more refinement.

Overall, the experience was well worth it and has set me up to enjoy some really exciting Swan Lake performances this week. I won’t get to see Boylston/Simkin, but I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting to read the reviews. Apparently tickets for all performances are selling like mad (the box office employee said that even employees aren’t able to get discount tickets for themselves now) so I expect nearly full houses and a wild audience. It’s now really starting to hit me that Wednesday will be my first live Swan Lake ever, and with the excitement and anxiety starting to build, I’m beginning to worry it might be my last! I hope the paramedics will be at the ready…

12 Responses to “Behind the scenes at ABT’s ‘Swan Lake’”

  1. avesraggiana June 26, 2012 at 6:44 pm #

    My very first live Swan Lake was with Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell, in Los Angeles. Literally a dream come true because a year earlier, I had seen them on TV on a pirated VHS videotape. Their performance in the early 1980s set the watermark for me, and an unsurpassed watermark it has remained even over thirty years later. ABT, Royal Ballet, Kirov/Maryinsky, NYCB; Cynthia Gregory, Altynai Asylmuratova, Olga Chenchikova, Lyubov Kunakova, Darcy Bussell, Viviana Durante, Uliana Lopatkina (my least favourite Odette). Many performances, many wonderful Odette/Odiles, but none have come close to supplanting the Makarova-Dowell performance that will forever be burned in my memory. Congratulations on attending your first Swan Lake. In all earnestness, may you enjoy many, many more.

    • youdancefunny June 26, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

      Thank you!

      Makarova/Dowell sounds HEAVENLY! How lucky you are to have seen them!

  2. ClassicalBalletTeacher June 26, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    Reblogged this on BalletScoop by the ClassicalBalletTeacher.

  3. Vicki June 26, 2012 at 8:03 pm #

    Oh I wish I had been there with you, but you made me feel like I was. I had a similar experience watching dress rehearsal for Giselle when they were in Chicago. Jealous that you get to see ABT in NYC. Have a blast and let us know EVERYTHING!

    Marcelo = sexy drama 🙂

    • youdancefunny June 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

      Haha–sexy drama.

      I’m jealous that you got to see them do Giselle! Assuming they do it next year (as they usually do) it might be the one I plan a short trip for!

  4. wiwaxia June 28, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Dear YDF, thanks for the fun overview…we’re attending our first ABT dress rehearsal next week (Le Corsaire) and I’m looking forward to it even more after reading your report. We did see Swan Lake yesterday with Boylston and Simkin and it was wonderful–the audience was very enthusiastic in its response.

    • youdancefunny June 28, 2012 at 3:56 pm #

      How exciting! I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time! So happy to hear that Boylston/Simkin’s Swan Lake went well!

  5. Mike July 1, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    “I won’t get to see Boylston/Simkin,”

    I saw that performance, which I liked very much. And I saw Monday (Part), Fri (Seminova [sic?]) and Sat (Kent).

    And I was wondering. How does one get tix for the rehearsals ? Or was it a one-time AMEX thing. I’d like to check out a rehearsal either this week (if they rehearse The Pirate) or next year.


    • youdancefunny July 3, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

      Hi! I’m not exactly sure how it works, though it’s Mastercard, not AMEX. Obviously they rehearse for every show, but I don’t think they do tickets for every production. I believe ABT season ticket holders can obtain rehearsal tickets as well.

      So jealous that you got to see so many casts! Good to hear that Boylston/Simkin performed well.

      • wiwaxia July 7, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

        Hi, we got our free rehearsal tickets by donating to ABT at the “Friends” level. That level of membership includes two dress rehearsal tickets in “a town near you” (DC/Kennedy Center in our case, usually at an inconvenient time), plus two tickets to one of three rehearsals in New York during the spring season. It just so happened that we had plans to visit NYC that allowed us to attend the dress rehearsals this past Monday. We saw 3 different casts of principals (3 different acts) at the “Le Corsaire” dress rehearsal, and it was really interesting to compare them. Most of the folks performing that evening were not in attendance, although Craig Salstein paced out some of his steps as Birbanto. In between we had fun watching the folks in costume plus quite a few out of costume rehearsing…some dancers went all out and others did not, and a couple scenes were run through twice with different casts. It was also interesting to hear instructions being given to both dancers and orchestra, watching staff march on stage to adjust props and dancers’ positions during the performance, etc. We saw also Osipova and Vasiliev dance for the first time.
        We attended the July 3rd performance the next day and really enjoyed it. Sarah Lane (replacing Misty Copeland) and Daniil Simkin were fabulous (and garnered enthusiastic applause from the audience), and it was our first time seeing Hallberg and Hererra, a real treat. Gennadi Saviliev, who is retiring from ABT, was fantastic as the slave trader as well.

      • Mike July 10, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

        Well I didn’t get to see The Pirate rehearsal but I did see 6 of the 7 shows. It’s fun. Silly. But fun. Never sublime — like Swan Lake.

        Thanks for the info about rehearsals.


  1. avoid, avoid, avoid (gangster style indifference & sloth) « Queen of the East Village - June 28, 2012

    […] reviews of Daniil’s debut yet. I found one review of the dress rehearsal […]

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