Fort Worth — Swan Lake came alive in a rush Friday night, for wonder of wonders, the orchestra was back in full force. From the first sound of the mournful oboe until the last elegiac violin, Tchaikovsky’s music poured life into a ballet fraught with fear and bliss, intrigue and surrender.
Like just about every other artistic director since Swan Lake first appeared 119 years ago choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, Ben Stevenson has made his own modifications for Texas Ballet Theater. The most dramatic changes include the following: Odette appears not in the second act but in the opening scene, gathering flowers before Von Rothbart transforms her into a swan. Prince Siegfried flees into the forest with crossbow alone, no Benno to accompany him, and later, there are no friends with crossbows to terrify the swans. Instead of four acts, Acts 1 and 2 merge, as do acts 3 and 4—and very deftly at that.
But otherwise Stevenson’s version is as traditional as they come, putting Odette, the swans and Siegfried at the forefront. Fortunately he has a noble and expressive Lucas Priolo as the Prince, a delicate and equally expressive Carolyn Judson in the dual role as Odette/Odile, and 16 swans so tender and precise that they resemble sheaths of grass swaying in the wind.
Peasants and nobility celebrate Siegfried’s coming of age with dancing and toasts. When his mother and attendant ladies appear, the mood changes for she—with implacable force—lets her son know that he must find a wife. As the queen, Anna Donovan is relentless, her huge hooped skirt taking up so much space that she seems as impenetrable as a fortress. As for Siegfried, he expresses his dismay with slow, looping leaps and by bringing his hands to his eyes, as though to shield himself from an impending blow.
But Odette changes everything for the prince, and fascination changes quickly to love. He drops his crossbow in astonishment the minute she appears in the forest, and she stands, transfixed, as she stares at him at a distance. It is moments like this—along with Siegfried’s looping, pleading leaps—that give the ballet its particular poignancy. Odette’s initial fear very quickly gives way to Siegfried’s eager protestations of love, with only Von Rothbart to stand in their way. The prince brings out his crossbow to slay Rothbart, but Odette intervenes; if the sorcerer is killed, the spell will never be broken.
One after the other the swans appear, snaking their way in a long spiralling file to fill the grove. With heads all tilted at exactly the same angle and wrists crossed just above their waists, they are the picture of everything delicate and vulnerable. Even their tutus shimmer with tremulous excitement.
Ms. Judson is the most graceful of swans, her arms undulating like flowing silk, her beating feet expressing alertness, her languorous turns in arabesque signaling surrender. As for Mr. Priolo, he is the most attentive of suitors, his eyes on Odette at every moment, and when he finally succeeds in wooing her, his great arching leaps express new freedom.
But back in the real world—that is, the court where a ball is being given in his honor—he has the grim task of choosing a wife. Princesses from four lands quite brazenly vie to capture his attention. The queen looks on with the intensity of a falcon. Four lively divertissements follow, with the Czardas the best of all. Six couples in gorgeous outfits of gold and cream, black boots and blocked hats, sweep the stage with delightful abandon. As though to rescue the prince from the inevitable, the sudden appearance of Von Rothbart in human form and a figure in black tutu and with a veiled face startle the entire company. As Odile, Ms. Judson is conniving but not particularly sinister, but when she leans back into the prince’s arms, recalling Odette earlier gesture, it suggests not surrender but triumph.
The end is swift and dramatic. Siegfried is distraught to discover Odile’s deception, and the swans gather in terror at Von Rothbart. As roiling waves of water envelope the back of the stage, the swans sway back and forth like trembling leaves. To Von Rothbart’s dismay, Odette leaps into the lake and Siegfried follows, to be reunited as swans.
David Walker’s stunning costumes and sets and Tony Tucci’s atmospheric lighting captured the richly changing elements of the ballet. But Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Moricz, gave the performance its full emotional power.
As a poignant side note, Mr. Priolo retires Sunday evening with this ballet as his own swan song.
The program continues with some change in cast Sunday at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. at Bass Performance Hall. Click the info icon in the floating menu at bottom left of your screen for more.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.
» Go here to read Gregory Sullivan Isaacs' evaluation of the Fort Worth Symphony's performance on Swan Lake, and why live music is crucial for ballet
» Cheryl Callon attended the Sunday matinee, which had different casting. Here's what she has to add about it:
Sunday matinee's casting featured Betsy McBride as Odette/Odile and Carl Coomer as Prince Siegfried. Overall, they both did fairly well, but some things were lacking. Maybe it was a case of "matinee syndrome," but the two didn't seem as technically strong as usual. Coomer appeared a bit unstable in his landings, and McBride had several slight but noticeable bobbles.
Their performances demonstrate growth over the past few years, and although both are quite engaging, they didn't quite fulfill each character. McBride fares pretty well as Odette (with a great portrayal of heartbreak at the end of Act II), but as Odile, she comes across as overly flirtatious rather than the sultry, beguiling black swan. Coomer's performance wasn't exaggerated enough to differentiate between his various emotions.
Regardless of those shortcomings, the matinee performance was still a huge success. Other notable performances came from Michelle LeBoeuf as the lead Czarda dancer and Joamamanuel Velazquez and Max Caro in the Spanish pas de trois. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra filled the gaping hole missing among ballet productions. Let's hope this partnership continues in the coming seasons.