What does a 1985 Rutger Hauer flick have to do with a revamped 1895 ballet? Both shows' heroines are birds by day and fair maidens by night. Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch took inspiration from the Hauer/Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Ladyhawke for his new version of Swan Lake, borrowing from the film's story line to explain how the handsome prince in the classic ballet could fall in love with a swan. In Welch's version, the maiden's curse makes her a swan only by day, and when the prince first meets her, it's night. This twist in the folktale is just one of the ways Welch has updated the classic.
But purists have nothing to fear here. This $1.6 million Swan Lake, the company's first new production of the beloved ballet in 22 years, doesn't fly too far from the original. Since the first full-length Swan Lake graced the stage of the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, choreographers far and wide have tried to put their own mark upon the Ivanov/Petipa creation. Some have been successful, some haven't. Welch's interpretation isn't as radical as Matthew Bourne's 1995 all-male, gay-themed version, nor as far from the fairy tale as the 2002 Graeme Murphy spin, which riffed on the Charles/Di/Camilla triangle.
This version of the man-bird love story, set as always to Tchaikovsky's haunting score, premiered at the Wortham Theater Center on February 23. We still have the handsome prince Siegfried, his beloved maiden/swan Odette and the evil Rothbart, who has put a curse on her, but there are some new characters. The rather lengthy first act includes some stunning athletic dances by Siegfried's friends and fellow hunters, and the four princesses who vie for his attention now have solos (delightfully performed opening night by Amy Fote, Barbara Bears, Sara Webb and Sharon Teague). Welch has sped up and streamlined the traditional choreography and trimmed down the old-fashioned miming and posturing that usually accompany the ballet. And because Odette is a maiden for much of the ballet instead of a swan, the pas de deux are romantic and languid. Her human form also allows her to emote more.
Traditionally, the ballerina dances both the role of Odette and that of Rothbart's black swan creation Odile, the swan-maiden look-alike sent to confuse the prince and make him break his vow of everlasting love to Odette. But in this version, the ballerina also must portray Odette as a human, and opening night, Mireille Hassenboehler excelled at the three portrayals. Her pre-Raphaelite maiden was chastely human; her swan queen was regally elegant, with fluid and fluttering arms that rippled like wings in flight; and her Odile was wickedly sensual as she seduced the prince in the Act II ballroom scene. Andrew Murphy made a princely Siegfried, and the entire cast performed like the world-class company Houston Ballet has become. Act I, Scene III was mesmerizing, with Odette, Siegfried and two dozen swans in white tutus moving in perfect unison. The corps has never looked so together, so stellar.
The late Kristian Fredrikson's costume and set designs make for modern yet opulent eye candy. The maidens' flowing gowns and the swans' white tutus are perfectly simple, while the court costumes are richly textured and vibrantly colored. Rothbart achieves new levels of evilness with his dark-knight-cum-Darth Vader costume, replete with cape and red-feathered helmet. The sets are minimalist and striking: The forest seems eerie and desolate, while the amber-hued stained glass of the court is warmed by torches. There's also a red-eyed dragon in the lake in Act III; it's a scary-looking addition, but it isn't fully used dramatically. Still, overall this production is a fitting tribute to Fredrikson's lengthy design career.
NOTE: SPOILER. One of the ways in which choreographers often tinker with the Ivanov/Petipa classic is by changing the ending. In various versions of Act III, when the prince battles Rothbart, either Odette dies, Odette and Siegfried die, or they all die. Welch has chosen a dramatic ending, in which Rothbart escapes as the prince fires his crossbow at him, only to have the arrow plunge into the swan's breast. As she changes back into human form at death, Siegfried gently lifts her and carries her into the lake, drowning himself. But amid the tragedy, Rothbart's spell is broken and Odette's swans transform back into maidens, allowing the audience to feel a little uplifted at the end.
Welch's version of Swan Lake is beautiful, contemporary and dramatically interesting. It should fly high for years.
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