Swan Lake
Sara Mearns and guest artist Guillaume Côté with dancers of New York City Ballet in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Odette vs Odile x 3

The great “Swan Lake” showdown

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.   

Take 1

The most classical iteration was presented by the first troupe to throw down: the Shanghai Ballet, who presented their interpretation—with choreography by Derek Deane (after Marius Petipa)—mid-January at the Koch Theater.  Like many “Swan Lakes,” this one used Tchaikovsky’s foreboding overture to show how the evil sorcerer Rothbart kidnapped the princess Odette and trapped her in the body of a swan. As far as these vignettes go (and they can go badly—as in American Ballet Theater’s version when Rothbart goofily wrestles a stuffed swan into submission) it was a good opening. Qi Bingxue, who danced Odette/Odile, appeared in a princess gown before she was accosted by Rothbart (Zhou Haibo). A body double in a swan tutu briefly emerged from under his cape to show her transformation. It was effective, old fashioned-stagecraft is often the best kind.

Traditionalism was the name of the game for the Shanghai Ballet, and they did it fairly well. The Act I set (by Peter Farmer, who also designed the costumes) was a darkly wooded grove, and one imagined that a lake of magically imprisoned swan maidens could exist not far off. The populace of the first scene was split into commoners and nobles, with the nobility doing most of the dancing until the peasants took over for the Cup Dance. This alternation of groups was a nice way to keep the first act, which can drag, feeling fresh. Instead of a jester figure, the Prince (Wu Husheng) soloed amid the throng, and he danced a meditative solo after the crowd dispersed as well. His sequence of slow arabesque promenades in plié into en dédans single turns, repeated thrice, was unusual and pretty. Though Wu was a little wooden in his acting, his lines and technique were solid. And the involvement of the prince throughout the first act was at least an attempt to give depth to his character.

Unusually, some of the swan corps entered before Odette in Act II, and she leapt out of a cluster of her peers at the prince instead of stumbling upon him alone. Once they got the stage to themselves, the doomed pair’s first encounter was full of mime as Odette told the story of her entrapment almost entirely through gesture. It was nice of her to bring the prince up to speed, but we in the audience didn’t need the recap. Then the swan army arrived, and it was a horde. Shanghai Ballet’s claim to fame is its corps of 48 swans—advertised as the most ever in any production. (The 48 ladies who comprised the cast were uncredited in the program, oddly.) They made the classic snaking swan entrance with a basic step: sauté arabesque and four emboîtés. The simplicity suited such a massive group. Very small arm ripples registered as tidal waves. The simpler the steps the tighter the unison.

Shanghai Ballet’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph courtesy of the company

Also, streamlined choreography was key because even on the huge Koch stage the lake was getting cramped. In many sections not everyone fit, so some swans posed along the ramps at the back of the stage and just did the arm motions of the dancing group—like a tiered lakeside cake. Rothbart was also very much involved in the swans’ doings, making space even tighter, for he had one of the largest capes I’ve seen—a mossy copse that surely had its own ecosystem.

Finally, with the pas de deux, Qi got to dance. With her deeply arched feet, long tapered limbs, and soaring arabesque she was a marvel of classical aesthetics. Her lower legs were so turned out, and her feet so winged, that her knees almost appeared turned in in contrast when she did a passé. Yes, ballet is that cruel: to be overly endowed in one area often upsets the balance in another. But this is nitpicking; she was gorgeous in choreography that hewed fairly closely to Petipa’s. The swan corps steps were less faithful, probably to accommodate such a gigantic flock. They were an impressive sight.

Many in the audience seemed to agree, and they unfortunately felt the need to personally document it. People on all sides of me were filming most of the swan sections, or taking pics and uploading them onto Instagram in real time. Everyone also seemed to have a bag of chips. It was wild, and also hard to focus on the dancers, who were working so hard. At intermission the ushers made rounds admonishing the crowd, and an announcement before the show restarted informed people that food and photography were not allowed in the theater. It helped for a little, so I concentrated as hard as I could on Act III.

Qi Bingxue and Wu Husheng in Shanghai Ballet’s “Swan Lake.“ Photograph courtesy of the Shanghai Ballet

The third act divertissements were rather staid. The one that stood out was, surprisingly, the Italian Dance. Zhao Meici and Gong Liwei were excellent in its mid-height lifts and quicksilver changes in direction. It had the most innovative choreography of the night. Qi was a feisty Odile, flicking her head and hands in contrast to her billowy Odette. She flashed a devilish grin straight at the audience on occasion, even upside down—with her back bent so far in a partnered passé that she could flirt with the crowd. She and Wu danced well in a scene that made as little sense as usual—maybe even less so here. Why would the prince’s skittish avian love suddenly show up at his ball, lusty as can be, with her evil captor now as a friendly escort? “SL” princes everywhere have to reconcile how to play this out; I don’t envy them. It was made even worse in Shanghai’s production by the fact that Rothbart brought a posse of gnomic goons with him, like Carabosse in “The Sleeping Beauty.” Really, the prince should’ve seen some red flags. Perhaps wisely, Wu mostly ignored the acting challenge and focused on his steps.

This apathetic approach served Wu less well in Act IV. Instead of running around the lake in desperate search for the lover he just betrayed, he shuffled in. Also underwhelming in this production was the double suicide ending. Instead of jumping from a cliff, Odette and the prince simply grand-jétéd offstage in the back-left corner. At first, I didn’t realize that was their big death scene; I kept waiting for them to return to kill themselves properly. But then they appeared in a chariot sailing away over the lake—she still in swan form—apparently united in the afterlife. Though the dancing was polished and the scale was grand, this wasn’t a particularly inventive or moving “Swan Lake.”

I must confess, the abominable audience behavior prevented me from having any chance at being fully immersed in the production. Even after the announcement, people snacked and took pics and texted. Much as I tried to block it out, I couldn’t help but notice that the woman to my left was editing pictures of her dog in between snapping blurry pics of the stage. And the tween boy to my right watched a movie on his phone throughout the show, using subtitles…for “discretion?” He wasn’t the only one. There were lots of young children equipped with screens and snacks so they would sit still for the lengthy evening performance. I should’ve taken notes on a laptop instead of scribbling on a pad in the dark! It was far more tragic than the story they tried to tell on the stage. 

Take 2

The NYCB’s less traditional production—which opened on Valentine’s Day at the Koch—is full of peaks and valleys. The choreography is by Peter Martins after Petipa, Ivanov, and Balanchine (who made a one-act version of “SL” that the company also performs). Martins lets the overture speak for itself, and it nicely interacts with neo-expressionist artist Per Kirkeby’s energetic scrim. But then the curtain goes up on a truly awful set. What is described in the program as “the palace garden” looks like a bombed-out bunker, as drawn by a toddler with thick crayons. Actually, the villagers in the scene appear to be those very crayons—as they are arrayed in bright solid orange and green. The prince and his pal Benno sport Crayola blue and red.

All the sets and costumes are by Kirkeby, and I have a love-hate relationship to them. I think the abstract sets of the Act II and IV swan realms are wonderful. The icy slashes and jagged earth tones evoke both the natural world and dark magic. I appreciate a fanciful take on the lake—so many conventional sets look like unimaginative terrariums. Kirkeby’s swan tutus are simple and flattering too. But the Act I and III sets and costumes are abysmal. If Kirkeby was going for stark minimalism, Martins should’ve followed suit and altered the story some. Instead, all the fusty trappings of royalty and tradition—a jester, a gilded crossbow, an exaggeratedly ruffled Queen’s collar, puffy peasant tutus for the pas de trois, velvet pillows and Prince Valiant wigs on the Pages—are presented in a cave. It makes no sense, pick a lane.

The drab sets and garish garb are a shame because they distract from some decent dancing. Daniel Ulbricht whipped out consistent quad pirouettes and clean cabrioles in his longtime jester role. The cast of children performing glissades is adorable, and the speedy Villagers dance is rousing. Alas, it is all hard to take seriously with the prince sitting on a teensy wooden block throne in the corner. It always reminds me of the Stonehenge set snafu in the film This Is Spinal Tap—when they use inches instead of feet in their design specs. Though I will hand it to Kirkeby: when the Cup Dance starts it makes some sense, since they already appear to be in a dank wine cellar. And when the men go after the swans with their bows in the transition, their neon orange shirts make them the only “Swan Lake” corps I’ve ever seen to take hunter safety seriously.

Once Odette enters, all is right with the world. Martins’s swan choreography, which borrows from Balanchine, is intricate and athletic. (Though I think conductor Andrew Litton took the waltz and a few other swan sections too fast: the dancers occasionally looked like chickens with their heads cut off.) Sara Mearns, in the role that put her on the map, starred opposite guest artist Guillaume Côté of the National Ballet of Canada as Prince Siegfried. Her interpretation was more internally focused than in years past, but it still worked. The four little swans—Baily Jones, Alexa Maxwell, Clarie Von Enck, and Emma Von Enck—were terrific.     

Sara Mearns and guest artist Guillaume Côté in “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Act III likewise has good dancing badly framed. The ballroom set consists of austere wood paneling and a few plank benches—more Quaker meeting house than palace. Poor Ulbricht, now clad in green, looked like a Ninja Turtle. And Von Rothbart’s generically evil orange and black costume could have been rummaged from a Halloween sale bin. But the divertissement choreography was engaging and there were some excellent performances: Claire Kretzschmar and Sean Suozzi in the Hungarian Dance and Unity Phelan and Adrain Danchig-Waring in the showstopping Russian Dance in particular. The Pas de Quatre was excised this season, a wise decision. Though I missed the music, I didn’t miss watching people struggle with those thorny, unflattering steps.

Mearns was a frosty Odile this time around, less flirtatious than intimidating. Excitingly, she nailed the ending to her difficult turning solo. And Côté proved to be a sensitive actor despite the poorly sketched mime of the betrayal scene. I have no idea why, after the climax of the Black Swan pas, Martins splits the principal actors—Odile, Siegfried, Von Rothbart, and the Queen—into pairs at the front corners of the stage. They swap places a few times and mime over and over what they are planning to do while courtiers mazurka blithely in the background. It is especially weird because in Act I the mime moves as briskly as Cliff’s Notes, yet in Act III it is fragmented and diluted.    

Once the Act III set floats away, Martins’s “Swan Lake” enters its strongest stretch. His mourning moderato for sixteen swans is lovely, as is the reconciliation pas de deux for the tragic lovers. I love their manège of partnered hops in arabesque into running split lifts. Mearns and Côté really shone in this scene, her coldness dissipating into an outpouring of emotion. I also like how Von Rothbart militarily summons his battalions of black and white swans to attack, but ultimately their loyalty lies with their queen. Martins takes liberties with the standard ending, to great effect. No one dies in this version but Von Rothbart. The reunited couple swears their love anew and the power of their love kills him, but Odette remains trapped in her swan form forever, slowly absorbing back into her flock at dawn’s light. The Prince is left alone, bereft. It is beautifully done, and very sad. It’s the best “SL” ending I’ve seen.

Take 3

By far the most radical depiction of “Swan Lake” is Matthew Bourne’s, which was performed at City Center in early February. Though the production is 25 years old (it premiered a year before Martins’s), that’s a drop in the bucket in “SL” time. It still feels revolutionary, and Bourne supposedly updated it some for this season. Bourne hacks up Tchaikovsky’s score, but his cuts serve his purposes. He completely rewrites and contemporizes the story, which fixes many of the narrative issues which normally plague this classic. For example, he gives the Prince a narrative arc! His swan corps is, famously, all male. As is his Odette/Odile figure, called simply The Swan/The Stranger. Matthew Ball, a principal with the Royal Ballet, was sensational in the dual role on opening night.  

Bourne stages the prologue as a nightmare. Propped on an enormous bed (the dynamic sets and costumes are by Lez Brotherston), the Prince (James Lovell) writhes in his sleep and dreams of a threatening swan man (Ball) above his head. With the first strains of the villager music, morning comes and the palace springs to life. The Prince’s large staff puppeteers him through elaborate ablutions. It was the same scene I saw recently in the Met Opera’s “Akhnaten,” but played for laughs. His aloof Queen mother joins him for a slog of royal duties: ribbon-cuttings, statue unveilings, glad-handing. The ginger-haired Lovell appeared suffocated by his princely role and ignored by his prim mother—who is apparently sleeping with half of her security detail. It was hard not to think of Prince Harry and Megxit at times.

There was a lot of subplot before the swans arrived. Lovell cavorted with a trashy blonde (Katrina Lyndon), much to the displeasure of his mother. They all went to a ballet within the ballet, where Bourne comically skewered Romantic works like “La Sylphide.” Tchaikovsky’s mournful moderato was the background for a fight between Lovell and his mother in his bedroom, in which he tried—unsuccessfully—to convey his loneliness to her. He went drinking at a seedy strip club, aptly enough to the Cup Dance music, to which Bourne cheekily choreographed party dances like the twist. Eventually he wandered to the river, wrote a suicide note, stuck it to a lamppost under a “Do Not Feed the Swans” sign, then tried to jump in the drink. Ball’s Swan emerged from the water to stop him just in time.   

Matthew Ball as The Swan in Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Up to this point, the choreography is skimpy. The plot is well told, but it is more acted than danced. Ball and his fraternity of swans change all that. With black beak points on their foreheads and long feathered shorts, they hiss and lunge at the Prince. They are strong and dangerous, a neat twist on hunter/prey theme of the original story. Bourne creatively updates—and gender-flips—the swan choreography. They flatten their hands and make little bird flitters, they drape their arms over their heads, they erotically nudge each other with their heads. The four little swans dance is chickenlike, with some twerking. And their entrance step is gargantuan: huge précipités into flying Violette jumps right and left. There were only fourteen of them, plus Ball, but they more than filled out the stage with their huge movements.

The Prince’s attraction to the swans is palpable, as is their animalistic sex appeal. Most classical “Swan Lakes” gloss over the story’s undertones of bestiality completely. Here Bourne demonstrates that the avian pack could be real or a part of the Prince’s psyche representing stifled primal urges—or symbolic of repressed homosexuality. And Lovell’s tender duets with Ball had real chemistry. Where conventional ballet productions tend to be more concerned with technique and aesthetics than romance, Bourne’s version has heat. I’ve never been as invested in the love story aspect of a “SL” as I was watching this adaptation.

This passion was threaded through the Act III ballroom scene. Normally the third act divertissements provide an offstage rest for the leads before their challenging Black Swan pas, but here the dances built up dramatic tension and furthered the story. Ball (now the Stranger) and Lovell were onstage and integral throughout. Ball’s party-crashing entrance was spectacular. After the throng of guests walked a paparazzi-infested red carpet outside, Ball magically appeared standing on the banister of the balcony inside, clad entirely in leather: like a man in black entering a hushed saloon for gunslinging revenge, his wardrobe straight from The Matrix.

He was not a swan anymore, but he still had smoky eyes and an otherworldly mien. He was as slutty as he was tormented, evoking Robert Pattinson in Twilight and Brandon Lee in The Crow. The charismatic Ball played it to the hilt, relishing his vengeful sexpot turn. Bourne’s choice to have him assume purely human form was genius. He was a curiosity to the crowd, and he bewitched them all in turn. Ball spurned Lovell while seducing each of the divertissement dancers, culminating in the seduction of the Queen to the Black Swan pas music. The poor Prince couldn’t handle his jealousy. It was brilliant in terms of plot development, but the actual dancing in the divertissements was an afterthought. In a deftly staged moment, the Queen disappeared, the entire ballroom emptied, and Lovell and Ball passionately tangoed alone. But this frozen isolation evaporated, and the Prince’s fury mounted until he pulled a gun and shot at the Stranger, accidentally killing his floozy ex-girlfriend instead.

As you can see, Bourne is completely off script now. The next sequence placed the Prince in a mental institution, where a sea of doctors with his mother’s face administered electric shock therapy. Then he was back in his bed, dreaming as at the beginning. The swan corps emerged creepily from under his bed and swung around his headboard like gorillas. Ball reappeared in white swan form—birthing himself up through the mattress—and tried to stop them, but they could not be derailed. They savagely attacked both men to death. Bourne’s final tableau is a doubled pietà—with the Queen cradling her son’s lifeless body on the bed below and the ghostly Swan embracing the Prince’s limp form floating directly above. There was a surfeit of psychological imagery to unpack, but it was undeniably powerful.

Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Johan Persson

Winner’s Circle

So, who gets the laurels? Matthew Bourne’s version was by far the most engrossing. City Ballet’s had the best-crafted dancing. But each production had its strengths and weaknesses, illuminating what “Swan Lake” can be at its very best—and worst. A successful “SL” must balance a high caliber of dancing, a convincing staging, and a compellingly clear narrative—which is such a tightrope to walk. The story is a cockamamie allegory, but the internal logic of the stage world needs to have enough integrity to foster the suspension of disbelief. Bourne’s “SL” did the best job of storytelling, but I would’ve liked meatier dancing throughout. Shanghai’s production was too safe, and it pulled its dramatic punches—though it had that jaw-dropping host of swans. City Ballet’s “SL” was utterly lopsided. Though I think it could potentially be great, with the help of a mime dramaturge and a total makeover of the Act I and III sets and costumes.

It is marvellously strange that an art form as elaborately codified and physically extreme as ballet exists in the first place. Conceptually, one would think that using it as the medium to tell a tragic tale of bored royals, mutant swans, wizardry, interspecies attraction, and death would be a disaster. But people seem to love it—enough so to attract large audiences to three wildly diverging productions in one crowded season. All the shows I saw were packed; the crowds enthusiastic. And truly, there is something compelling about a throng of dancers in swan costumes gently flapping to Tchaikovsky’s haunting score. Somehow, a synchronized sea of people using rarefied technique to impersonate birds taps into something mysteriously, yet unmistakably, human.  

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