Ballet historians agree that the first productions of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, in 1877, were uninspiring. Leading lady Pauline Karpokova was past her prime and just not good enough to play the difficult role of Odette, the Swan Queen. For years, choreographers insisted on reworking the composer's movements, randomly substituting numbers from other mediocre ballets. It's hard to imagine what those early Russian audiences must have seen. It wasn't until two years after Tchaikovsky died, in 1893, that Maryinsky Theatre choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov revived the ballet in four acts for St. Petersburg audiences, capturing the composer's full range of human emotion. Aided by the perfect light of a full moon last Friday evening, the Houston Ballet distinguished itself once again with its powerfully dramatic rendition at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Performing Swan Lake is a true test of mettle for any classical dance troupe. But what is compelling about our own nationally renowned company's performance can't be boiled down to technical prowess. To interpret the story well, movement has to be artfully infused with theatrical gesture. Not only do the principal dancers tackle with ease the complexities of Swan Lake's choreography, they know how to act.
Choreographed by artistic director Ben Stevenson from the Petipa/Ivanov version, the story begins as carefree Prince Siegfried and his friends celebrate his 21st birthday and the start of hunting season with lots of drinking and dancing in the castle courtyard. When his mother presents him with a crossbow, she tells him of her plans to throw a formal ball, where he is expected to choose a wife. Siegfried reluctantly agrees, but soon leaves the party to hunt the flock of swans flying overhead. Spotting one at the lakeside, he is amazed when she's suddenly transformed into the beautiful Odette, the Swan Queen. After Siegfried promises not to hurt her, she tells him the story of the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, who cast a spell on her, cursing her to live as a swan by day and human by night. Only a man who swears eternal love for her can break the curse. Siegfried, of course, swears to be faithful.
Ever since the Italian prima ballerina Pierina Legnani overwhelmed St. Petersburg audiences with her 1895 interpretation of Odette and her evil double, Odile, this role has become the centerpiece of Swan Lake. Soloist Courtney Harris -- well cast as the petite, fluttering Swan Queen -- nicely balances the pathos of Odette with the bold seduction of Odile. Odile is the evil sorcerer's daughter who arrives uninvited at Siegfried's birthday ball disguised as Odette, determined to seduce him into breaking his promise to the swan maiden. When she plays the white, shimmering Odette, Harris appears completely vulnerable. Seeing the prince eye her with his crossbow, she backs away terrified, tiptoeing en pointe, arousing pity and amazement in him with her delicacy and fragile demeanor. During the couple's initial pas de deux underneath the moonlight, Harris is demure, reminding us -- as do Tchaikovsky's melancholy violins -- that she has little control over her fate. Once or twice Harris appears to teeter, perhaps overly aware of the need to make Odette appear fragile in contrast with the brazen Odile.
Harris's Odile, on the other hand, is a beguiling temptress, teasing the unsuspecting prince with provocative gestures. Clad in black, she leers seductively at Siegfried, hoping she can trick him into falling for her. Harris is impeccable as the bewitching Odile that Siegfried mistakes for his beloved. She nearly steals the show during the culminating ballroom scenes of Act Three, twirling sensationally in what looked like 30 consecutive fouettes (I stopped counting at 25). A dizzyingly spectacular effect.
Dominic Walsh is no less impressive as the frustrated Siegfried, who is tired of his domineering parent. At the ball, he's believably distant and bored, and even occasionally standoffish when forced to politely dance with the eligible foreign princesses. But back in the arms of Odette, Walsh's Siegfried is the perfect, smitten fairy-tale prince. The two lovers, frequently paired during Acts Two and Four, make love during several romantic duets, mastering the art of a moving embrace. In these scenes, Tony Tucci's moonlit stage places us squarely in the realm of Tchaikovsky's imaginary swandom as Harris and Walsh glide together, occasionally clasping one another against the violin's recurring leitmotif.
Houston audiences have come to expect technical mastery from this dance company. Stevenson's mission, however, is to produce classical dancers who are equally impressive as stage artists. None of the soloists was disappointing. From the moment she demands that her son marry, Kathryn Warakomsky is plausible as the insistent, matronly queen who parades around the stage in voluminous hoop skirts.
Timothy O'Keefe is rollicking as the prince's drunken tutor, Wolfgang, who tries to get the distracted partygoers back to the celebration at hand. When he tries to outdo the gymnastic feats of Siegfried's best friend, Benno, he falls over, his inebriation getting the better of him. Dawn Scannell and Parren Ballard are a sensationally lively duo, whirling and clapping to a quick Neapolitan folk dance as the prince preoccupies himself with Odile. These two exchange delightfully playful expressions, gesturing boldly, as they cavort from one end of the stage to the other. It's during moments like these that Houston ballet audiences truly see the classic-to-modern range of this company.
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Another notable example of solo bravado is the pas de trois during the birthday party. After dancing in a threesome, Sally Rojas, Shirley Sastre and Yin Le each execute a superb solo performance. The two girls move lightly, increasing their speed to make way for Le -- in the role of Benno -- who gives us monumental leaps and turns with the sturdiness of a gymnast.
Tchaikovsky's symphonies are often dismissed as not being formally complex compared with those of Beethoven or Mozart, but his scholarly defenders take a cue from audiences who long ago deemed him the world's greatest ballet composer. Tchaikovsky doesn't just give us sweet, plaintive melodies in Swan Lake, he sets up tonal contrasts meant to evoke the mood changes in specific characters, such as Odette's movement from sadness when she first meets Siegfried to the ecstasy she feels when he promises himself to her. Much credit goes to the Houston Ballet orchestra, directed by Ermanno Florio, for their rich interpretation of these melodies.
Set designer David Walker manages to evoke the Victorian era almost exclusively through costume design, making up for the set limitations of the Pavilion stage. During all of the indoor scenes within the castle, the guests wear a varied array of outfits, giving us a glimpse of both aristocrats and peasants. Walker will use the company's full sets when the troupe takes Swan Lake to the stage at Miller Outdoor Theatre, August 2022.
Swan Lake is performed next by the Houston Ballet from August 20 through 22, 8 p.m., at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, Hermann Park. Admission is free. For information on limited reserved seating, call 284-8352.