ABT’s Swan Lake: A beautiful Odette and Von Rothbart x 2 – the Monster and the Gigolo

Our first Swan Lake can remain in our minds forever, much like the first Christmas we can remember, the first summer holiday, the first love.

The look, the music, the anticipation, all ingrained into our memory.

As the years go by, we remain faithful to that Lake but the more Swan Lakes we see, the more we tend to split into two ways of thinking.

Conservatives demand the “traditional” Swan Lake while the more adventurous are happy to see a fresh take on the old story, no matter how quirky that interpretation may be.

Beyond the quirky there’s also the crazy brave, such as Alexander Ekman’s A Swan Lake for the Norwegian National Ballet (premiering in April 2014). It features a human fountain, a diva who throws her hairdryer into the lake, causing a mass electrocution, a dancing robot with wings and a stage filled with water, a la Pina Bausch. The conductor takes his bow wearing gumboots.

Less crazy, more intriguing are the very popular Swan Lakes of Matthew Bourne and Graeme Murphy.

Fourteen years ago American Ballet Theatre’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, took the conservative path when he created his Swan Lake, adding only two elements to the standard traditional model.

In most Swan Lakes, the villain, Von Rothbart, is an owl or similar creature, who, in disguise as the father/accomplice of Odile accompanies her to the ball. One dancer depicts the two characters.

McKenzie depicts him at the extreme end of the shapeshifter prototype with Rothbart played by two dancers.

We see him in the brief Prologue in his two guises, a human who entrances Odette and hands her over to his alter ego, a horned monster who appears to have emerged from a lake, his body and wings encrusted with foliage and tree bark.

The second exception to the “traditional” is the brevity of Act 4. Trimmed to the minimum it ends with Odette and Prince Siegfried diving into the lake, followed by an apotheosis in which they are united in death and pictured, as a cameo, within a sky dominated by a sun on a painted backcloth.

While the additions and deletions are interesting enough, Swan Lake stands on the quality of the leading dancers.

For ABT’s tour, its first to Australia, the company has brought five principal women, and one soloist (Misty Copeland) and three principal men, and one soloist (Alexandre Hammoudi) to dance the roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried. It’s slightly out of kilter as ideally there would be the same number of principal men as women.

On 28 August, opening night, Cory Stearns, substituting for an injured David Hallberg, danced with Hee Seo whose performance as Odette was compelling. She is blessed with a body made for ballet, in particular her long, expressive arms and pliable back. Whether alone or with her partner, Seo goes that little bit further, taking risks that are not so much about showmanship as they are about abandonment.

Her fluidity was clear from her first appearance and the expression that rippled through her body was just as apparent in her face and eyes.

Seo’s Odile was in brilliant contrast, to such an extent that she looked like a completely different dancer, but it lacked an element of seduction that makes sense of Siegfried’s foolish decision to declare his love and therefore betray his promise of everlasting love to Odette.

As Prince Siegfried, Cory Stearns’ princely physique and handsome face made a strong initial impression. Of course the Prince is unhappy and melancholy in Act 1, longing for someone or something that remains out of reach. But Stearns himself looked slightly uncomfortable and it wasn’t until Act 3 that he appeared to regain his confidence.

While Roman Zhurbin as the “Monster” Rothbart, has few opportunities to dance, Alexandre Hammoudi as the “Gigolo” Rothbart, dressed in purple and gold, complete with long purple boots, a moustache and tiny beard, had no such restrictions.

In Act 3, his virtuosic solo and seductive moves with the Queen and the Princesses who hoped to marry the Prince revealed the extent of his strong technique and acting ability.

In this interpretation, Rothbart follows in the path of Matthew Bourne’s production in which the villain teases and tempts all the women he encounters. But while Bourne’s Rothbart is both sinister and sexy, McKenzie’s “Gigolo” Rothbart, dancing to Tchaikovsky’s Russian Dance, verges on the camp and the comic.

The Act I pas de trois is a showcase for dancers with a charismatic presence while their technique is usually a given.

In ABT’s Swan Lake on opening night, Stella Abrera and Melanie Hamrick more than fulfilled the demands. Both were charming and both technically very impressive but while Blaine Hoven, had the technical skills for the pas de trois he didn’t sparkle in a showcase role that calls for finesse, lightness and exuberance.

Hoven doubled as Benno, the Prince’s friend, who is one of those Swan Lake optional extra roles that come and go over the decades.

Act 3’s national dances can escalate in vivacity as they build up to drama of the black swan pas de deux but here they seemed perfunctory until Joseph Gorak and Zhiyao Zhang lit up the stage with a dynamic Neapolitan dance.

At the heart of Swan Lake however, are of course the lovers and the corps de ballet, the leading swans and cygnets and ABT’s swans were magnificent in Act 2.

Equally impressive were the four princesses in the ballroom scene.

Zach Brown’s costumes and sets clearly contrast the bucolic freedom of Act 1 with the constraints of Act 3 and cleverly shift the designs from pastel blues, violets and greys to the brittle, gold splattered interior of the Great Hall where the ball takes place.

The Queensland Symphony Orchestra excelled under the baton of ABT’s music director, Ormsby Wilkins, a conductor who must know the dancers very well as he has worked with the company for close to a decade.

McKenzie’s Swan Lake opened ABT’s season in Australia, at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre. The company’s season began on 28 August and runs until 7 September. From 5 September the company will perform a triple bill of American works.

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Hee Seo and Roman Zhurbin, ABT’s Swan Lake, photo © Gene Schiavone

Cory Stearns and Hee Seo, ABT’s Swan Lake, photo © Darren Thomas

Hee Seo as Odile, ABT’s Swan Lake, photo © Darren Thomas

ABT’s Swan Lake, opening night curtain call, Hee Seo and conductor, Ormsby Wilkins, photo © Darren Thomas

ABT’s Swan Lake, photo © Darren Thomas

Alexandre Hammoudi, ABT’s Swan Lake, photo © Gene Schiavone