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Swan in Love

Why is it so hard to find a good “Swan Lake” these days? The ballet is performed by practically every classical company, and yet so few of the myriad versions in circulation are any good. The wrong things have been cut out (like the fourth act dances for the swans) or added (like the pesky Jester that pops up here and there, or the Bolshoi’s “Evil Genius”). The period is changed, creating the need for awkward adjustments, or an unnecessary subtext is added, or the mime is erased, or the ending is altered. The variations are endless, but almost no version satisfies. I’ve seen exactly one in the theater that told the story simply and effectively and felt musically alive. Of course there are older stagings that one can watch on video that do seem to work. (An overview of all the available productions would be interesting.)


American Ballet Theatre: “Swan Lake”


Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY, July 10 & 12, 2023


Marina Harss

Isabella Boylston and Daniel Camargo in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

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The problem seems to be that “Swan Lake” is so often performed, and so synonymous with ballet itself, that the details don’t seem to matter. After all, it will sell out anyway! This is the case with the version in American Ballet Theatre’s repertory, by Kevin McKenzie, which premiered back in 2000. The ballet has become almost ritualized.  The set pieces, like Zack Brown’s once-sumptuous costumes, are faded and tired. The character of Von Rothbart, the sorcerer who holds the heroine captive in swan form, has been doubled; he appears in a prologue that “explains” the origins of the story, and in the third act, where he becomes a purple-booted seducer who ensorcells every female in his vicinity. The character is pure camp. Even worse, perhaps: the beautiful dances for the swans in the final lakeside act—and their corresponding music—have been needlessly chopped off. And even Tchaikovsky’s grand, sweeping score, with its shifting colors, has been drained of urgency and drive. No matter, the line to get into the theater wraps around the plaza.

And yet, and yet, at times ABT’s “Swan Lake” manages to quicken the pulse, beyond all reason, through the performances of the dancers.  ABT’s swans move with poetry and through-the-body expressivity—imagine how great they would be if the tempi were swifter and more dramatic! The young dancers I saw in the first act pas de trois, SunMi Park, Chloe Misseldine, and Sung Woo Han (a particularly warm, sunny Benno) danced with spirit and refinement. Park dances with her whole body, and exudes happiness as she does so; Misseldine turns like a top, and balances effortlessly. Talk about luxury casting! In separate casts, Sierra Armstrong and Virginia Lensi were bold and buoyant in the passage for the “Big Swans,” with its bounding jumps. The Neapolitan dancers Jonathan Klein and Jake Roxander performed their tricky choreography with clean technique and an affable manner. 

Isabella Boylston in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

But these secondary roles, no matter how well danced, can’t lift this “Swan Lake” from its general lethargy. That is left to the principals, and it is because of their performances that this ballet still matters. I saw two casts, featuring Isabella Boylston and Daniel Camargo on July 10, and Catherine Hurlin and James Whiteside on the evening of the 12th.  Both casts were exciting, highly individual, deeply musical. The dancers laced their interpretations with unexpected details and nuances. I can say that Hurlin, who débuted in this ballet only last year, is one of the most striking Odettes I have ever seen, both because of her movement quality, in which transitions and coordination seem to melt into each other, and because of her acting, which feels both true and subtly transformative.

Both dancers harness their strengths to create performances that are free of mannerisms and seem to flow directly from who they are. I was particularly struck, in Boylston’s rendition of the “Black Swan” pas de deux, by the freedom and attack with which she approached the bold choreography. She seemed to be gulping the steps down gleefully, enjoying the sensations they produced in her body. (That pleasure is an illusion, I know, but in this case a very convincing one.) Her fouetté turns (I counted 29) at the end of the coda were phenomenal: strong, on the beat, like the crack of a whip, just as the name of the step suggests. Earlier, in the first lakeside scene, she used the pliancy of her upper body—one of her assets—to add an extra tremolo to her supported pirouettes, befor shooting down into a downward-facing arabesque like an arrow. It looked as if she were about to break free from her boundaries, become untethered. It made me gasp.

Catherine Hurlin in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Rosalie O’Connor

You might think that Hurlin–strong, dynamic, young, exciting—would be more suited to the allegro “Black Swan,” passages, in which the sharp, technical choreography is a weapon meant to dazzle the unsuspecting prince into thinking he is in love. And she was, indeed, very effective in those moments, dancing with a kid-like exultation. Ha! Top that, Siegried!  But it was Hurlin’s Odette, by the lakeside, that enraptured the most. At first she was fearful, a little frantic, her emotions expressed in nervous, bird-like shakes of the head and a strong effort to pull away, as if to fly off. None of this looked fake or put on. It was expressed physically, and with such naturalness that it seemed to reflect the obvious impulse of her body. 

Hurlin’s phrasing and coordination are silken—the movements flow together like waves. I’ve seldom seen such ease and physical logic. In the lakeside de deux she stretched and stretched, her body expanding into space, only to fold back in on herself, almost painfully. Her foot, rising to the topmost point of a développé on the final note of the violin melody (played with a gorgeous, almost vocal texture by Kobi Malkin), coincided with her gaze, so that the audience’s eyes, feelings, and inner rhythms arrived at the same point, together. But it didn’t look calculated, but rather like the logical resolution of a phrase. And because it seemed to just happen, miraculously, it created a strong surge of emotion. 

Catherine Hurlin and James Whiteside in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Rosalie O'Connor

Her swoops into penché were bold, fearless, like a dive to the bottom of the lake. Instead of being embraced by Siegfried, it was she who took his hand and wrapped it around herself. The interpretation was both piercing and lacking in any kind of exaggeration. It just unfolded. Partnering her impeccably, James Whiteside could only watch, with wonder, the marvel unfolding before him with the rest of us. 

 Whiteside, returning from an almost career-ending injury, is dancing well, if not with the same force as before the accident. (In 2021, his knee gave out onstage, leading to major surgery.) He is a highly polished dancer who leaves nothing to chance. He comes down from his double tours in a neat fifth position and a deep plié, turns well, and leaps in graceful arcs through the air. But he is understandably still a bit cautious. His acting on this occasion was subdued—he tended to disappear next to Hurlin. 

By contrast, Camargo, who danced with Boylston, is an extremely eloquent performer. He creates shadings. His prince is youthful and sunny, but lonely. He was charmed by the ladies of the court, and seemed happy to dance with them, but then lost his nerve. Then, in a moment of vulnerability, he launched into a heartbreaking soliloquy, full of aching renversés and arabesques. Camargo’s phrasing is lilting and soft-edged; he plays with the transitions, creating a feeling of tension and release that suggests poetry. Like Whiteside, he is a fantastic partner. He barely touched Boylston in the lakeside pas de deux, giving her the space to move, while creating a kind of aura of love around her. The feeling between them was almost voluptuous, like a river overflowing its banks. So much love; so much wonder.

And so much potential. American Ballet Theatre is bursting with talent at the moment. The excitement is there, just within reach. Imagine how much more intense it could be if they had a truly great “Swan Lake.” 

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, scheduled for publication by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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