Of swans, sylphs, and Shakespeare
Now that high-definition broadcasts of performances by some of the world’s leading ballet, opera, and theater companies are being shown at venues like the Lensic Performing Arts Center and The Screen, it may only be a matter of time before groups such as the Russian National Ballet Theatre will no longer come around. Until then, we still get these bus-andtruck companies, which may not represent the crème de la crème of their art form but do manage to put on a relatively good show. Real Russian ballet danced by real Russians still carries with it a certain novelty value.
Even if some elements of the Russian National Ballet Theatre border on the dreadful, there is something to be said for so many white tutus on a blue-lit stage. The familiar Tchaikovsky Swan Lake score may be coming at you from a not-so-hi-fidelity recording, but how can you not be pleased with an old-fasahioned backdrop — a lakeside castle atop craggy cliffs — and fascinated by the live dancers with their arms in classical alignment? If it’s artistry you’re looking for, on the other hand, this was a Swan Lake to cringe over, a Chopiniana that was mercifully simple, and a Romeo and Juliet that made you want to get up and scream, “Why?”
The best news of the two nights was Chopiniana, a 1907 piece by Ballets Russes choreographer Mikhail Fokine (known for his Firebird), and later revised into a longer work called Les Sylphides. This is a dreamy, romantic-style “white” ballet, and there were rows of ballerinas in threequarter-length tulle dresses, lots of tableaux, and a use of stylized arm gestures and a mannequin-like artificiality of movement. American dancers have been trained, since the time of Balanchine, to emphasize quickness, ultra-high extension, and jazz-edged movement. The performance of Chopiniana was a refreshingly old-fashioned exercise in pure classical technique. The dancing matched the leisurely pace of the Chopin music — a polonaise, nocturne, mazurka, waltz, and even the tarantella — and was lovely in its sylph-world of color and mood.
Natalie Portman (star of the movie The Black Swan) should have coached the Odette/Odile in Monday night’s Swan Lake. Ekaterina Egorova, while technically proficient, was so bland as the white swan and washed-out as the black swan (she seemed to have forgotten to put on any make-up for the evil role) that watching Portman vamp on film from the head up would have been preferable to the full-body, real-dance version on display here. It was in Swan Lake that the men of the company looked most embarrassingly unequal to the women. Ruslan Mukhambetkaliev, the evening’s Prince Siegfried, was too young for the role — a pre-prince, without an inkling about romance. While the women were well-trained but had no spark, the men were technically uneven and often hammy.
Romeo and Juliet featured the Tchaikovsky Overture-Fantasy instead of the haunting, familiar, full-length score by Prokofiev. Tchaikovsky’s piece is a condensed version of the story, which works fine for an orchestral overture but not so well in a sit-com-length theatrical production. Within five minutes, Tybalt and Mercutio were dead, after 10 minutes, Romeo and Juliet had done the deed, and within half an hour, they were angels being carried off stage in arabesque. There was no balcony scene, no secret wedding, and no crypt scene to speak of. There was no time to even drink poison. Romeo was dancing over Juliet’s prone figure one moment, and the next moment, he was dead.
— Michael Wade Simpson