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