It may have seemed late in the year for us to see a ballet in K-State’s McCain Auditorium, and the supernatural business in Swan Lake may have made it seem an odd candidate for a Sunday matinee. But the recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s first ballet nevertheless entertained a near sell-out crowd.
The company performing was Russian National Ballet Theater, a solid outfit touring with three dozen dancers. Now about thirty years old, the RNBT has athletic and talented performers and a mandate to keep the traditions of classical ballet alive.
The Swan Lake we saw was the 1895 Petipa choreography, except that we also got dances from the original, 1875 version. Perhaps ironically, it was some of the choreography of that act which were the first to be replaced, at the behest of the Bolshoi company’s lead ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya.
I’m not sure we were all aware that the cursed Odette, queen of the swans, and her admirer Prince Siegfried sacrificed themselves to end the dominion of the evil sorcerer Von Rotbart over the young women represented by the corps. But we did get enough of the story to enjoy the on-stage movement, and I think that’s the point.
The story has been changed before, of course. Here it followed the familiar trail. The Prince is coming of age. In the first act, he meets with members of the court, including his mother, the athletic jester, and a tutor and master of ceremonies.
After a bit of a shaky start, the company came together three or four minutes into the performance while dancing to a very famous and beloved Tchaikovsky theme. There is the presentation of the gilded crossbow, and a trio (one man and two ballerinas) dance with characteristic Petipa developments.
Then, with almost no break between scenes, we were taken to a mountainous forest which could have been designed by Richard Gorey. Here we saw for the first time how important the lighting was to be in the production. Fog appeared, as did the Prince, who was watching some particularly enchanting swans.
These birds were actually young women forced to maintain the form of swans during most of the day. Their tormentor, looking like a burgundy manalishi with a two pronged crown, also appears and notes the Prince’s interest in Odette.
In the third act, the Prince meets possible brides, and each of them performed dances set off by the individual dancer’s use of a prop—a tambourine, say—or by her accompanying dancers—three men or two couples, for example. These dances—apparently the ones that were not designed by Petipa—were the ones that confirmed the quality of the performers in the company.
The last of the four was a young woman who simply didn’t look like a ballerina. But she was. And her fine turn was followed by the appearance of Odile, the sorcerer’s daughter. She resembles Odette. In fact, the part is conventionally danced by the same ballerina who plays Odette. This makes the Prince’s willingness to declare his romantic allegiance to her understandable, even though a swan appears twice just outside the ballroom, as if to warn him of his impending error.
The final act takes place at the lake and again makes use of the sixteen or eighteen dancers of the corps and of the graceful Odette who was the traditional size for a lead ballerina—small enough to be lifted with apparent ease.
The costumes were all right, storybook illustration-like. The simple flat sets were a little better. But the dancing itself was quite good. The jester got off some crowd-pleasing leaps, twisting with his body at an acute angle to the stage floor. Von Rotbart was menacing. The Prince was strong and ready.
The crowd, though, really favored the Odette, who had already won them over when she did a long series of quick, complete spins, a sure crowd-pleasing business.
We’ve recently seen “The Black Swan” film and Matthew Bourne’s version of the ballet, with the corps of male swans, has been frequently revived the last twenty years. So it was nice to see a well-performed old-standard production of this great ballet. It made a fitting end to the more serious portion of McCain’s season.