Now that my pulse has returned to normal, I think I can write a competent review of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. The Wednesday evening cast had Gillian Murphy in the dual role of Odette/Odile and Marcelo Gomes as Siegfried. Though I had some idea of what to expect having watched the dress rehearsal, I didn’t expect myself to get so caught up in the whole spectacle! By the end of their white swan pas de deux there may have been a tear in my eye, by the end of the third act I had already forgotten about some of the things I don’t like about Kevin McKenzie’s particular production, and by the fourth I was a few blips away from a heart attack. In short, I had a blast and Gillian and Marcelo absolutely killed it. I sort of hate the crudeness of that phrase, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the magic that happened on stage in the Metropolitan Opera House.
Since I prefer to talk about good things, I’m going to keep all the complaints to this one paragraph and be done with it so I can rave like a lunatic. I still don’t like the blatancy of McKenzie’s staging, and feel the prologue where you see von Rothbart transform Odette ruins a few things like her entrance in Act II, where you don’t see her change from a swan into a human but it’s symbolized by a single leap in flight. It’s a much more poetic entrance, and even von Rothbart’s entrance as a human sorcerer in the third act has more excitement and drama than what we see in the prologue (seriously, ask the music). There’s also a lot of choreography during the overtures which I didn’t like because the overtures are in fact a part of the experience of going to the ballet—they offer a reprieve from the action, a moment to absorb the music and even process what you’ve seen or are about to see. It almost felt like McKenzie was trying to add to the story, but the result was a ballet super-saturated with superfluous dance. I appreciate that he wanted to develop the plot, but I wish he picked elements that would actually contribute, and choreographed in a way that was more than just haphazardly stringing steps together because some of the corps patterns and pas de trois work had me constantly wondering what I was supposed to be directing my attention to. And choreography has to be more than just a sequence of steps that hits the obvious accents, because the art of phrasing necessitates more thoughtfulness. Also, I like a tragic end so the apotheosis where Odette and Siegfried are reunited in heaven is questionable for me, not to mention the fact that we see that after an excruciatingly long death scene for von Rothbart. I would be happy to see the suicide leaps simply be the end!
Meanwhile, I’m ambivalent about the maypole in Act I. I wasn’t bothered by it, but I would like to point out that Frederick Ashton’s use of a maypole in La Fille mal Gardée is far superior in every respect. I helps that ribbons are a motif in La Fille, but Ashton’s use of it has more charm and creativity in weaving it together. So, I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that ABT should do La Fille. Last week I had a chance to speak with Ashtonians Karen Eliot and David Vaughan (author of Frederick Ashton and his Ballets and the companion website, the Ashton Archive), who both agree the company would be lovely in La Fille.
But I digress—the dancing throughout Swan Lake tonight was superb by the entire cast. Gillian was especially bewildering and I was quite moved by her Odette. I know many like their Odette’s fragile, but Gillian’s has a bit of diva in her and sometimes it’s nice to see an Odette that gives some meaning to her title as Queen of the Swans. She still gave us delicacy, but I enjoyed seeing that melt away as her pas de deux with Siegfried continued, as if her trust in him were blooming in front of our eyes. She of course delivered the fireworks in style as Odile, capitalized by one of the most inconceivable series of fouettés I’ve ever seen. I can’t even begin to describe how difficult it is to coordinate moving your arms WHILE pirouetting, but to give some idea, dancers center pirouettes by supporting themselves with their backs, which is also where arm movements must originate. Many people instinctively move their arms from their shoulders, but in ballet this looks superficial and can also make the torso appear very stiff. However, somehow Gillian has figured this all out and can do a moving port de bras a la seconde while turning, and the effect is breathtaking. I remember seeing her try this in a video from the Vail Festival, and thought she was just sort of fooling around, but she’s obviously perfected it and bravely did it tonight in her only Swan Lake this season (alternating them with triple pirouettes of course). While I’ve aligned myself in the school of thought that believes things that already have a name need not be named again (I’m looking at you “B-plus,” aka, “attitude a terre”), these should be called “Murphy turns.” (seen at 0:21 below)
I have to say that after seeing her voluptuous, Renaissance Titania, and now her exciting Odette/Odile, I have fallen in love with Gillian Murphy. She has a wild side and I can’t get enough of it! When Odile has the audience in the palm of her hand, tricking Siegfried is almost an afterthought.
As for Siegfried—what can I say about Marcelo? Oh, that he’s a gracious partner, has fabulous technique (the way he rolls through his feet when coming down from relevé in his Act I solos is DIVINE and highly underappreciated), the finest of acting skills, and a million dollar smile. I’m pretty sure even all that isn’t enough praise, but it’s impossible to not love it when someone dances their heart out. It’s such an appropriate quality to have as Siegfried because with just the right amount of naïveté it makes the idea of love at first sight believable, which is crucial for his first encounter with Odette. The same characteristic can be magnified to become tempestuous and foolhardy, making the scam Odile and von Rothbart pull off on him also authentic. Sure, Siegfried is a chump, but you do empathize with him because we’ve all had a taste of deception in our lives and know how horrid and bitter it is. Thus, Marcelo’s Siegfried is one we can easily forgive in Act IV, which succeeds in only intensifying Odette’s amnesty. It’s dangerously close to being more drama than the soul can handle, but despite my aversion for vulnerability, precariousness, and the pearly gates of Heaven, it’s an adventure worth dying for.
With only one more Swan Lake that I’ll be attending on Friday, the end of my time in New York looms on the horizon. Still, milestones have been achieved and I am happy to report that yes, I waited by the stage door to meet Marcelo and present him with a small gift, in person this time. This also proved to be a near-death experience when at one point while waiting, Catherine and I turned around to screams of young girls, finding ourselves practically swimming upstream in a stampeding horde of budding ballerinas. Still, what a treat for them to see their idols! Though Gillian was mobbed for what seemed like ages, she took her time for pictures and autographs. I patiently waited my turn to see Marcelo, because A. I’m not a teenage girl and B. I don’t need pictures or autographs (the stage door is in the parking garage and who even wants to be photographed in a subterranean dungeon with fluorescent lighting?). For me, the memories are enough and a great performance from a dancer is like a gift—they literally give themselves to us on the stage, which is why I felt the need to give back. Obviously, I avoided doing it in person the first couple of times, but I was almost mad at myself for being such a scaredy-cat. I’m almost thirty for crying out loud, I can’t have the same fear equivalent of a baby bunny! Wounding my own pride may have done the trick though because I was determined (and stubborn enough) to get over it, and so I did. I gave him his gift, had a lovely conversation, and he was incredibly gracious. Best of all, I didn’t feel crazy or stupid, and with Catherine as my witness, I got a hug!
It’s hard to believe that almost a year ago I had written “An Open Letter to Famous Dancers” and it’s even harder to believe I might’ve just achieved freedom from my fears. It appears as though many gifts went around tonight!