Reviewed by on    Dance   ,

photo Ian Whalen

Photo Ian Whalen
Semperoper  Dresden Ballet company

The renowned  Semperoper Dresden Ballet under the artistic direction of Canadian Aaron S. Watkin,  has just whirled through  Ottawa this past  weekend with their moving romantic  performance of Swan Lake, one of the world’s  most famous narrative ballets.

Set to the music of Tchaikovsky, performed by the orchestra of the NAC under the direction of Mikhail Agrest, the tragic story inspired by  Russian folk tales concerns the handsome prince Siegfried who falls in love with Odette, the young  woman bewitched by an evil magician who can only retain her human form for a brief time every day but who can be released from the spell if she has the  true love of a human.  

Odette and Siegfried swear undying love to each other but  Rothbart (Gareth Haw)  with his black swans, led by Odille the perfect imitation of Odette, trick  Siegfried into betraying his oath of fidelity and the result is an a highly dramatic encounter in Act two that unites and separates the lovers.  There are various endings to the choreography first presented by Marius Petipa  and his collaborator actor, mime and dancer Lev Ivanov   but this particular one was based mostly on the original interpretation

Eric Västhed’s costumes were luscious, Arne Walther’s fairy tale romantic neo-gothic set  fired our imagination, Aaron S. Watkin’s  lighting design and  projections transmitted all the emotion that one could hope for and filled the space with magic volumes that bathed  Tchaikovsky’s music, transporting our  gaze into  this Russian world of enchantment. Nevertheless, perhaps the corps de ballet was a bit tired, or the dancers were not really  settled into the stage on opening night because something was missing in Act one.  The dancers  at first  seemed to lack spark!

There was even  the impression that they had softened some of the more difficult passages of choreography to avoid creating pressure on the principles or else to avoid having the principal dancers, such as the Prince Siegfried draw attention to possible  weaknesses in the younger dancers who were perhaps not quite up to par. That feeling haunted me all through the first scene of Act one .   Even the pairing of Semionov and his friend  Benno von Sommerstein, (Jon Vallejo) created an imbalance because of their different heights  and the choreography sometimes gave the disconcerting impression that the prince was tossing Benno  about like a child.  This was soon forgotten  when we saw the strong dancing by Vallejo and the ease with which he conducted his huge leaps  in the later scenes, almost surpassing the work  of Semionov.

However,  Act 2 which began  with the Royal Ball where  the Prince was to announce his choice of bride, changed  everything. First of all, Odette, the Swan Princess had already made her appearance in the forest  in Act I scene 2, when  the prince left his guests in the palace to hunt  the swans with his friend Benno.  Smitten by this strange, beautiful  feathery creature who suddenly appears in the forest,  we the audience are  just  as quickly  captivated by the long, lithe slithery  and utterly beautiful Sangeun Lee whose arms fold around the prince as her head falls back and her body arches like a bird that has been seized by a strong hand.  She then  melts into  Seigfried’s arms during that  delicate  pas de deux in Act I scene 2 .  Their passion is incarnate, their fate is sealed and their dancing takes off to new heights  in Act  2, assumed by the black swans, the appearance of Rothbart and the pas de deux with Siegfried and the black swan Odille, whose function now is to make the prince fall in love with her and betray the white swan.  It was almost as though the choreographer Aaron  Watkin intentionally built up the complexity of the dancing energy, the height of their leaps, the perfection of their  execution, the contribution of the lighting and the music that overwhelmed them all,  as the performance progressed.. They have added a flashback to try to explain how the Rothbart cast his evil spell on Odette’s family but the narrative  was not particularly clear and I imagine that brief interlude could easily disappear without leaving any sense that something was missing.

Certain moments were particularly beautiful. The ball  held in the court to announce Siegfried’s choice of wife. The coming together of excellent acting that  enhanced the  choreography  as well as the balletic interpretations of the various forms of folk dancing from  around the kingdom,  introduced sprightly sequences, impeccable footwork, and lavish costumes from Spain, Italy. Hungary, Russia, Poland  and many places that  brought much happiness and joy to an event that was going to end in tragedy. . The all-female  group of  delicate Russian dancers interpreting the  slightly oriental movements in a  line of undulating  bodies was one of the most beautiful interpretations of that sequence I have ever seen. Waving their handkerchiefs, synchronizing their delicate movements, pointing toes and shifting their bodies in unison.

In scene 2 of that act where the Queen is dying and her fellow swans try to  protect her from the gaze of the prince who has betrayed her, the prince becomes an excellent actor as he searches frantically trying to find her  hidden among the swans scurrying around, eventually  subjugated by the magician who invades  the forest and possess them all.  They can no longer resist and  must follow  Rothbart,  whereas Siegfried tries to resist.  The  great combat  between good and evil becomes an epic encounter  where the lighting completely transforms the stage, establishing an  insurmountable sense of evil. And yet,  this  tragic ending became the formal expression of something  extremely beautiful , no doubt the projection of the way Odette’s family lingering far in the past,  would have wished it to be.

A fine performance that engaged us with many personal touches of choreography that added unusual emotional and psychological strength  to the music. This Ottawa performance was a triumph for the Semperoper Dresden Ballet.

Swan Lake  was performed in Southam Hall at the National Arts Centre November

Reviewed by Alvina Ruprecht. Photo by Ian Whalen