GREGORY’S SWAN LAKE: A NEW NBT TREASURE
By: Hal de Becker
With Cynthia Gregory’s innovative staging, Nevada Ballet Theatre now possesses a stunning full length yet compact version of the Tchaikovsky/Petipa/Ivanov immortal ballet classic Swan Lake.
The traditional version consists of four acts and lasts at least three hours. Its first Act conveys some of the plot but aside from a Jester and a few courtly dances is merely a parade of lavish costumes and scenery.
Gregory, by eliminating Act I and compressing the ballet into two hours with a prologue and three scenes, increased its accessibility and spared viewers a possibly tedious hour.
Unlike the Burmeister prologue which depicts the capture of young maidens by the evil sorcerer Rothbart who turns them into swans, Gregory’s focused on Prince Siegfried, an idealistic youth longing for true love but facing an arranged marriage at the insistence of his mother the queen.
Alone in a garden setting, Siegfried gazes dreamily into the distance. He is joined by courtiers and the queen who invite him to celebrate his 21st birthday. He declines and instead pleads with his mother not to force him to choose a bride.
Thus, with a brief episode of succinct mime and suggestive action, Gregory established a vital aspect of the story without the palatial trappings of the lengthy Act I and without diminishing any of the ballet’s beauty or impact.
In the first of the three scenes, Siegfried wanders deep into a forest where at a lakeside he encounters the Swan Queen and her companions who, for a few hours, are able to resume human form. Odette’s reaction to him evolves from fear to trust and finally to love until Rothbart appears and the maidens are transformed back into swans.
At the palace, prospective brides are introduced to the Prince in a divertissement of national dances. The scene’s highlight is the arrival of Rothbart and the seductive femme fatale, Odile. They deceive the Prince into believing that Odile is Odette. When he learns the truth he rushes away in search of his real beloved.
Back in the forest, he is reunited with Odette only to be told that in order to destroy Rothbart and free the other swans from his spell she must sacrifice her own life. Siegfried chooses to join her in death and together they perish in the lake.
The details of the story were clearly conveyed with one exception. Towards the end, Odette’s leap into the lake was barely visible and by some missed altogether, and the apotheosis described in the program wherein the lovers “…clasped in each other’s arms rise into eternal life…” never occurred leaving their fate inconclusive.
Gregory’s staging established a truly poetic mood not only by enhancing the usual choreography but by creating lovely new passages as well. She made the otherworldly atmosphere seem almost believable by investing the principal characters with realistic, human emotions.
The dual roles of Odette/Odile are so daunting with technical and dramatic demands that they are frequently performed by two ballerinas. Gregory assigned both roles to a single dancer, the company’s de facto prima ballerina Alissa Dale. Her confidence was not misplaced.
As Odette, Dale sustained the ‘poetic mood’ and brought an eerie quality of her own to the role. Her serpentine arms, slender lines and pure non-acrobatic classicism gave visual realization to the often slow, extended musical passages, especially in the ‘white’ adagio.
In the more virtuosic role of Odile she overcame the many technical challenges, except for the 32 fouettes – and that wasn’t her fault. Her level of attack of the step was unprepared for the inordinately fast tempo played. But such circus-like feats pale when compared to other aspects of the role most of which she fulfilled.
On opening night her dramatic expressivity in both roles was minimal but with a few more performances would have undoubtedly increased.
As Siegfried, Steven Goforth also seemed to experience some first night pressures. However, his princely demeanor served him well as did his high double air turns and jetes in the grand pas de deux with Odile. His partnering, if not entirely relaxed was secure and he blended his own lines nicely with hers. He and Dale were physically well matched and should be paired again.
One of the performance’s most memorable portrayals was Stephan Azulay’s as Rothbart.
He had no need for the reptilian and monster disguises used elsewhere. With his trimmed black beard, flashing eyes and bejeweled costume he resembled a Renaissance prince – a Borgia, naturally. Dramatic, dominating and demonic, he was the personification of Evil.
The four national dances, Hungarian, Spanish, Russian and Neapolitan were well-danced gems all choreographed at a higher level than usually seen in such divertissements.
For once, the dance of the four Cygnettes was performed with precise unity of heads and legs. The crisp passes and entrechats, and the rhythmic side to side head moves were executed as if by one body.
The corps de ballet, also a harmonious unit, was occasionally positioned in exquisite tableaux with a group on each side of the stage and another, differently arranged, in the center. Their crossing and circular patterns were eye-filling, and may have been especially captivating seen from the balconies above – which, incidentally, were filled to the brim.
The dancers were superbly rehearsed with stress on their acting as well dancing and attention was also paid to dramatic and musical nuances. One such occurred in the White Swan adagio when Odette tenderly placed her hand on Siegfried’s cheek at the very moment of a slight pause in the music. The timing of the gesture emphasized the warming of her feelings towards the Prince.
All the dancers, company members, apprentices and trainees, deserve mention but space allows naming only a few. First among them is Christina Ghiardi who whether portraying a swan or a Russian Princess was, as always, outstanding.
Milles Lucas, Fukui, McGirr, Thomson, Zimmerman, Meltzer and others brought grace and beauty to their roles as swans and princesses. Messrs Hochberg, Tanabe, Alvarez, Tucker and Stillman made handsome and technically strong princes in the national dances.
Under the baton of Lief Bjaland 50 members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic delivered a sensitive often concert level performance of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score, despite occasional faster-than-usual tempi.
Peter Jakubowski’s lighting was a major factor in creating the unearthly forest settings. Two of many magical moments included his illumination of the outstretched arms of the kneeling swans, giving them a uniformly pale, ghostly look. And at the ballet’s end, as the swans resumed human form, his gradual transition to a warm glowing dawn gave the illusion of breathing life into them.
Peter Farmer’s costumes and scenery were appropriate and effective.
Preparing for and performing in this production will undoubtedly be a highpoint in the professional lives of the NBT dancers involved. It was certainly a memorable event for NBT’s patrons.