Pennsylvania Ballet's 'Swan Lake' is pure gold

Reviews, Swan Lake

Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer
 
When a sensational dancer first steps onstage, it's as exciting for me as for an astronomer discovering a nova. Zachary Hench gave such a moment when he flashed his star quality stepping out as Prince Siegfried in Christopher Wheeldon's production of Swan Lake in 2004. Newly commissioned by Pennsylvania Ballet, it was a million-dollar gamble I hope has paid off in real money as much as it does in artistic quality and innovation.
 
I reviewed that premiere, but looking back on it, I did not fully appreciate its value. Now, through artistic director Ángel Corella's clarifying lens, I saw flash after flash of brilliant dancing from the entire cast. It's gold worthy of Fort Knox, on view in a two-weekend run at the Academy of Music.
 
Thursday evening, Hench opened Swan Lake's fourth showing. This is said to be his final appearance with the company. But his poetic profile, carriage, and miraculous leapability look too much at their prime for these to be his retirement performances.
 
I've seen many Swan Lakes, including Matthew Bourne's gorgeously campy gay version. But Wheeldon's keen choreography, along with Jason Fowler's elegantly understated staging, is the most postmodern, self-reflexive, and soul-stirring ever.
 
It is Siegfried's 21st birthday, after all, and Wheeldon's contemporary hand follows the fluffily frosted 1875 original in its iconic Petipa/Ivanov 1895 revision, smoothing it to marbled perfection. And although it hews quite faithfully to Tchaikovsky's music, surgical editing of some incidental sections makes it more coherent. Beatrice Jona Affron led the orchestra in an excellent performance that included outstanding violin (Luigi Mazzoli), trumpet, and harp solos.
 
This Swan Lake begins and ends with pastiches of Degas-styled ballerinas warming up while enduring the attentions of top-hatted gentleman patrons, fended off by the principal male dancer (Hench). It slow-burns into rehearsal scenes, all Wheeldon's, until the French doors in Adrianne Lobel's stunning set open, drawing you into the full ballet.
 
As Odette/Odile, Lauren Fadeley brought a soignée quality to her arm and hand movements, and to the clean placement of her point shoes, whether on the stage or some imagined spot in the air behind Hench's head while in arabesque penché. Her tours and demeanor as Odette were luminous, especially when she deflected the prince from firing his silver crossbow, a birthday present from his mother, the queen. But Fadeley could have been a tad darker as seductress Odile.
 
Heart-stopping performances: Amy Aldridge reprised her gasp-worthy Russian Dance striptease and Jermel Johnson his even more controlled, more elastic entrechats. James Ihde was a demonic Von Rothbart.
 
The icing on this sleek cake was the cygnet pas de quatre. You know the one, with the swans, arm over arm, crisscrossing in uptempo tour de force line-dancing, speed-demon battements frappés, and that swanlike head bending side to side and to and fro, here danced in perfect synch by Marria Cosentino, Evelyn Kocak, Mayara Pineiro, and Elizabeth Mateer.

Review: Pennsylvania Ballet’s Swan Lake

Reviews, Swan Lake

by Kat Richter for The Dance Journal
 
If you care about things like gender equality, cultural sensitivity and breaking convention, Swan Lake represents everything that is wrong with classical ballet.  But if you want to think about the male gaze, a film studies theory that many dance scholars now apply to the issue of feminism in dance, if you want to think about issues of authenticity and cultural appropriation and the problematic history of “character” dances, if you want to see the traditional ballet form challenged but simultaneously upheld (or if you just want to get out of the snow and treat yourself to an evening of stellar dancing), then Christopher Wheeldon’s adaptation of the Tchaikovsky classic, performed this weekend and next by Pennsylvania Ballet, is just the ticket.
 
I’ll admit that I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while, having missed the storybook ballet when it was presented back in 2011 amidst the Black Swan Oscar frenzy.  Swan Lake is a classic for a reason, and its numerous re-workings run the gamut from Matthew Bourne’s (which features for just a few moments at the end of Billy Elliot and explores homoerotic themes through a cast of all male swans) to Wheeldon’s, which places the work in the context of the Paris Opera House and employs a show-within-a-show framework, complete with a sinister “patron” who represents the abbonés of nineteenth-century Paris (they were granted behind the scenes access in more ways than one).
 
The ballet opens like an Impressionist painting coming slowly to life: ballerinas dressed in long rehearsal tutus and shawls prepare by pinning their hair and adjusting the ribbons on their slippers.  It blurs the lines between art and artifice with can-can dancers concluding the gala that would have been the prince’s birthday celebration in the original production.  (In a nod to Toulouse-Luatrec and the Moulin Rouge, their skirts are printed with black cats and windmills).
 
Due to the physical demands of Swan Lake (it clocks in at just under three hours and the dual role of Odette/Odile is one of the most difficult of the canon to dance), PA Ballet has five different couples dancing the lead roles including Mayara Pineiro and Jermel Johnson, Oksana Maslova and Alexander Peters, Brooke Moore and Ian Hussey and Lillian DiPiazza and Lorin Matthews, but on its snowy, Thursday night opening, it was Lauren Fadeley and Zachary Hench.
 
Fadeley was charming as the coquettish Coppélia last season and surprisingly successful in her embodiment of the Siren in last month’s Prodigal Son (not surprisingly because she lacks talent or emotional depth, simply because in her case they’re usually employed in service of the ingénue, not the femme fatale) but she crafted a realistic portrayal of both the tormented (Odette) and the tormenter (Odile).  Her fouette turns in Act III—perhaps one of the most well known examples of virtuosity in ballet—seemed a bit out of time for the first few revolutions but they finished to a well deserved applause and her tragic exit at the end of Act IV was perfectly ethereal and otherworldly; it was hard not to cry.
 
Thursday night’s performance also confirmed that Zachary Hench will remain a perennial favorite, despite his retirement.  The role of the Principal Dancer (in which he is both the prince and a dancer performing the role of the prince) was created for Hench in 2004 and it’s easy to see why: he is passionate but boyish, a strong and confident jumper but also a brilliant and generous partner.
 
Amy Aldridge also deserves mention—her Russian Dance was precise yet sultry—but the real accolades should go to the corps.  Wheeldon’s choreography for the swans, sometimes as few four in number but sometimes as large as eighteen, is never dull.  Patterns emerge and then give way, ever evolving and fluid, just like the mysterious lake from which the ballet takes its name.  The soft port de bras belie powerful footwork, encompassing the juxtaposition between hopelessness and strength, between evil spells and love eternal, that makes Swan Lake, in any iteration but especially this one, such an enduring classic.

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