A performance of “Swan Lake” by the Mariinsky Ballet is always an event in its own right. For 120 years this ballet has been a permanent fixture of the company’s repertory and a box-office magnet—the embodiment of the Mariinsky’s unique brand and style.
Today “Swan Lake” is synonymous with classical ballet itself—the most famous and best-loved ballet in the world. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the famed swans on the lake. When “Swan Lake” was premiered by the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in 1877, with the choreography by Julius Reisinger, the ballet was deemed a fiasco and quickly disappeared from the repertory. Two more revisions of the first production followed, in 1880 and 1882, created by Joseph Hansen. Neither survived the test of time. The libretto and the choreography in all three Bolshoi’s stagings lacked dramatic logic and did little justice to Tchaikovsky’s score, which was innovative for the time and considered too complicated and unfit for dance.
It was Marius Petipa and his assistant Lev Ivanov who turned “Swan Lake’s” bad luck around, creating an enduring masterpiece of classical dance-theater which premiered at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater in January 1895. They struck gold with it, giving Tchaikovsky’s music its eternal life. The Mariinsky Ballet brought this timeless classic to New York for a five-performance run as part of the company’s 10-day residence at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January.
It’s refreshing to see a production of “Swan Lake” in which the main storyline develops in a logical and straightforward manner, without narrative detours and heavy symbolism, instantly drawing the audience into the fairy tale of a beautiful princess turned into a swan and a young prince who promised her his unconditional, everlasting love.
Mariinsky’s “Swan Lake” is lavishly outfitted from top to bottom. The opulent costumes by Galina Solovyova, in handsome color palette, stress imagination and style. The attractive set décor by Igor Ivanov has a picture-book appeal, particularly in the “lakeside” acts, depicting a moonlit lake shrouded by the looming forest and ominous-looking mountains. (The glowing surface of the lake looked so amazingly real that the audience burst into spontaneous applause just at the breathtaking imagery onstage.) The decorations created a perfect backdrop for the unfolding drama and helped convey the magic and mystery of the story. But more than anything else, this “Swan Lake” is noteworthy for its impeccable sense of classical style and dramatic atmosphere. Here the expressive richness of Tchaikovsky’s music and the poetic power of the Petipa-Ivanov choreography organically merge together, creating one inspiring whole.
The performance I attended on January 23, the final performance of the run, featured a stellar cast led by Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov.
At the age of 32, Tereshkina has entered her prime and today is one of the Mariinksy’s reigning prima ballerinas. She graduated from the Vaganova Academy in 2001, was promoted to soloist rank in 2005, and became a principal dancer in 2008. Her performance in the dual role of Odette / Odile was the most exciting and theatrically meaningful renditions of the famous role I have seen in years.
Tereshkina is a strikingly beautiful dancer; tall and exquisitely built, with flawless technical skills and a compelling artistic talent. She adds to that her natural magnetism and stage charisma. All these qualities come in handy for the role of the Swan Queen.
Her Odette, the enchanted princess turned into a swan and yearning for freedom, was anything but a pitiful, mournful creature. A true royal, she projected cool glamour and serene poise, holding her head high and proud. She was a prisoner of the curse, but not for a moment did she reveal her vulnerability and despair. At first, she perceived Siegfried as a threat, pushing him away. Yet slowly resistance gave way trust and tenderness as her heart melted in response to his loving affection; and then this Odette became marvelously alive: You could feel her heightening pulse and see her body trembling with newly aroused feelings, her luxurious movements sinuous and warm.
In the romantic pas de deux at the lakeside, Tereshkina was a personification of poetic grace and solemn beauty, deftly capturing the mood—and the heart—of the entire ballet. Relaxed and calm, she floated onstage as if in a dream, empowered by the assurance and devotion of her prince. Her expressive eyes and every movement of her supremely graceful body spoke of a woman in love.
As the wicked temptress Odile, Rothbart’s daughter transformed to resemble Odette, Tereshkina was all erotic allure and malice. Her metamorphosis from one incarnation to another was striking. Conspiring with her father, Odile was on mission to bring Siegfried to ruin by making him to fall in love with her. For Tereshkina’s Odile, this was an easy task. With her ravishing looks and charismatic appeal, she was bedazzling—a dangerous femme fatale.
In the famous Black Swan pas de deux at the royal ball, Odile, with uninhibited aplomb, whipped off a torrent of dizzying fouettés at top speed as if it was nothing; her dancing both tautly controlled and explosive. Her seductive glances toward Siegfried gleamed with implacable mischief as she enticed the prince with promises of ecstasy and bliss. How could he ever resist her? The naive young man didn’t stand a chance, proclaiming Odile as his true love and thus betraying Odette.
As Prince Siegfried, the 30-year-old Vladimir Shklyarov came across as an impressionable youth and generous spirit. A principal dancer of the company since 2011, Shklyarov has a strong, effortless technique and undeniable charm; yet with his boyish looks and down-to-earth demeanor, he doesn’t project the aristocratic nobility this role calls for. His mime scenes during the birthday celebration were muted and dull, adding little spark to the somewhat slow-moving first scene of act I. Yet, he came into his own in the second scene, establishing immediate rapport with Tereshkina. Their chemistry onstage was spontaneous and sincere.
This Siegfried was genuinely smitten by the enigmatic, stately Odette; and he visibly lost his reason, seduced by her black-feathered counterpart. He looked downright shattered and devastated, realizing the tragic twist of fortune at the end of the second act, when the identity of Odile was revealed. When he faced off with Rothbart in the ballet’s final moments, he did so as a hero reborn.
Andrei Yermakov gave a fascinating portrayal of Rothbart—intimidating, dynamic and powerful. Clothed in a black, winged costume, complete with a horned helmet, his Rothbart—part-avian creature, part-medieval warrior—dripped with menace and ferocity. He delivered his expansive jumps with a speed of lightning, moving through the air as a distructive force of nature.
Wearing a silly grin on his face, Vasily Tkachenko made for a zany and pesky Joker, a constant presence during the royal court scenes. His showy, virtuosic dancing and frolicking attitude offered a wild contrast to the formal composure of Siegfried.
The corps de ballet lived up to their famed reputation. The lakeside scenes of the first and third acts rendered some of the highest points of this production, featuring the most iconic images of “Swan Lake”—a flock of ethereal white swan-maidens in immaculate lines and patterns. Whether they moved about the stage, creating perfectly sculptured shapes and formations, or stood motionless, framing the leading couple—the visual and emotional effect of their graceful communion was mesmerizing. I especially admired the suppleness of their backs, their beautifully pointed feet and elegant port de bras, as well as the collective commitment and assured authority of their dancing. Every pose, every step was perfectly aligned and had a lovely, statuesque quality, unveiling imagery that will stay with you long after the show is over.
The only drawback of this otherwise magnificent “Swan Lake” was its final scene. Mariinsky’s current staging is based on the 1950 revision of the Petipa-Ivanov production by Konstantin Sergeyev. It comes with the Soviet-era-required happy ending, which trivializes the climax of the ballet and goes against Tchaikovsky’s musical intention. The fight between Siegfried and Rothbart at the end of the ballet, in which the prince conquers the evil wizard by ripping the sleeve off his costume, looked rather cartoonish, undercutting the dramatic impact of the finale.
Still, Mariinsky’s “Swan Lake” is a must-see production; and the confidence, commitment and drive of the entire cast and the superlative quality of their dancing revealed a company in full power.
The Mariinsky Orchestra was in a very fine form under the baton of Gavriel Heine, who shaped the sweeping melodies of Tchaikovsky with focus and flair, drawing a lush, glorious sound from the musicians.