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Indiana Woodward and Gonzalo Garcia in “Andantino” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Erin Baiano

Pyotr Ilych in the House

New York City Ballet's Swan Lake I program

Performance
New York City Ballet: Swan Lake I
Place
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, February 11, 2022
Words
Marina Harss

Thankfully, no further Covid disruptions have marred the company’s winter season, though fear-of-Omicron has kept the houses less than full. A shame, since the company is dancing so well. This week and next, Balanchine’s one-act “Swan Lake” has been added to the mix, in place of the originally-scheduled full evening production by Peter Martins. Even “Swan Lake” has not been enough to fill the house, though it was noticeably more populated on the evening of February 11 than it had been a few days earlier.

Balanchine created his “Swan Lake” for the company in 1951, at the request of Morton Baum, director of City Center, the company’s home at the time. Balanchine said more than once that he preferred “Sleeping Beauty” to “Swan Lake,” and it’s true, his version reads at times like an assignment, never less than well done, but without much heart. The half-hour précis includes dances from both lakeside acts, including of course the famous pas de deux. At the time of creation, Balanchine said that he had kept Ivanov’s “main ideas,” but the choreography for the ensembles is very different from that which has emerged in recent reconstructions of notations made a decade after the ballet’s St. Petersburg premiere. If those are any guide, this choreography looks more like Balanchine than like Petipa: clean, expansive and uncluttered, instead of soft, small-grained, and delicate.

But the most striking difference is the coolness, not just in the décor. This “Swan Lake” is set in an icy landscape, by Alain Vaes. There is hardly any mime or storytelling at all. It is mainly a dance–a pas de deux surrounded by ensemble dances. The appearance of men in hunting attire is superfluous, almost silly. They might as well be wearing leotards, given their function here. And Balanchine’s swans, including the Swan Queen, have little of the elegiac, mournful quality of other productions. As Nancy Reynolds has written, his Odette is a “forbiddingly distant and unemotional creature.” On Feb. 11, the creature was embodied by Sara Mearns, who first performed the role (in Peter Martins’ version) at the age of 19.

Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen in Balanchine’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Mearns’ interpretation has morphed and changed over time. Like all her dancing this season, it has now acquired a detachment that chimes well with Balanchine’s idea of the role, but is in stark contrast to the urgency of her former interpretation. In the past, she seemed to connect deeply, emotionally, with the role of Odette, an impression created by the deep curve of her back, the urgency of her footwork, and the tendril-like quality of her arms. Now, at least at this performance, she seemed remote, almost as if dancing it for herself. Her steps, and the shapes she created with her body, were bold, sculptural, and connected by a strong sense of legato, one moment leading inexorably into the next in an uninterrupted melody. This was an impressive performance, but a detached, cool one.

Her partner, Russell Janzen, who has little to do in this version, made less of an impression. The ensembles, with their brilliant patterns and clean, dynamic choreography are pleasing, as are the dances for two soloists, Ashley Laracey and Emily Kikta. But they lack poetry or the suggestion of deeper meaning. As I watched, I thought to myself, “they could be dancing any Balanchine ballet.” One can’t help but feel that Balanchine’s heart wasn’t in it.

“Swan Lake” was the final instalment in an all-Tchaikovsky program that began with a polished performance of “Serenade,” led by Sterling Hyltin (full of nervous energy), Erica Pereira (dancing with more full-bodied energy than usual), and Emilie Gerrity (all long, fluid lines). In the middle were two pas de deux, one by Robbins (“Andantino”) and the other by Balanchine (“Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux”). In the former, which Robbins created in 1981 for Darci Kistler and Ib Andersen, Indiana Woodward sparkled to the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. “Andantino” has a sweetness and sense of wonder that suits Woodward’s beaming, energetic dancing perfectly. At one point she seems to swim through the air as her partner (the gallant and handsome Gonzalo García) promenades her, and at another, García “pushes” her gently forward through space with his hand, as if he were the breeze. The effect is full of charm.

Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia in Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Charm is a quality the young dancer Roman Mejía, who on this night had his début in “Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux,” has in spades. (May it never curdle into an over-ingratiating smirk.) Mejía and Tiler Peck, who has danced this pas a hundred times, polished off the choreography with total assuredness, in his case verging on glee. At one point, he turned Peck on pointe with the nonchalance of a double bass player playing his instrument. His cabrioles were huge, with a double thwack in the air that made the crowd cheer. Mejía uses a deep plié (an oddity in the company) to launch him into big, air-filled jumps, and to land them without a sound. He is not yet the most refined of dancers, but then again, this is not the most refined of pas de deux. Peck was on top of her game, as usual, playing with the music, luxuriating in the port de bras. But her performance has acquired an over-bright gleam. I remember her appearing more natural, more open, when she danced this ballet a few years ago with Joaquin de Luz.

Who knows what Pyotr Ilych would have made of the evening. Andrew Litton, the company’s music director, who was on the podium, is not the most sensitive Tchaikovsky interpreter. Lack of sentimentality is a virtue, but a little more give and take in tempi, and expansiveness of emotion, would have warmed up the evening. The same can be said about Balanchine’s “Swan Lake.”