The ink is barely dry on year-end top ten lists, yet the first months of the new year bring no respite from heady contest. In sports (the Super Bowl), cinema (the Golden Globes through the Oscars), and politics (the primaries), winter in America is rife with competition. Why should the ballet world be any different? In the span of roughly a month, NYC dancegoers had to choose between three major productions of that classic synecdochical of the art form: “Swan Lake.” Actually, there were four—but in this review I won’t cover the St. Petersburg Ballet Theater’s two shows at BAM. I will only compare the troupes who set up shop for at least a full weekend and offered multiple principal swan casts. They are, in order of their runs: the Shanghai Ballet (4 shows, 2 casts), Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures (13 shows, 3 casts), and the New York City Ballet (12 shows, 6 casts). I saw the opening night and first cast of each. Normally, “Swan Lake” viewers only have to worry about the head to head battle between Odette, the good white swan, and Odile, the evil black swan. Both are usually played by one dancer, and that held true in all these productions. (Spoiler alert: Odile wins every time, unless you consider double suicide to be the ultimate trump card.) So, which company won the swan-off? The three combatants had markedly different approaches, but unlike the Iowa caucus, some clear victors emerged. And the comparison shed some light on what makes “Swan Lake” so problematic, yet also enduring.
Sara Mearns and guest artist Guillaume Côté with dancers of New York City Ballet in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Erin Baiano