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pnb’s swan lake: a review

Thrills, chills, magic, and moments of sublime beauty: this is exactly what Swan Lake should be.

Louise Nadeau (photo © Ben Kerns)

That being said, I can’t agree with R.M. Campbell, who writes in his new journal (Gathering Note) that PNB’s production “has never looked more splendid.” The two people sitting next to me on opening night would not have agreed with him either; they kept a virtual score card, marking with relish the few steps they perceived as “mistakes” and crowing over them during intermission.

Actually, I didn’t agree with this nit-picky couple’s comments either… but they did make me watch several steps more carefully the following two nights to see if those “mistakes” were actually part of the choreography. They were. And they were interesting. And I would have missed them if the couple hadn’t voiced their opinion. Which just goes to show you how much we can learn by considering other people’s opinions.

So, what made the production less perfect than other years? (For me.) Small things: One of the Seven-Brides-for-Seven-Brothers sneaking into the waltzing-guests scene; rare moments where a dancer didn’t seem to know why she was doing a particular movement; discrete mishaps in the orchestra (which otherwise played well; thank goodness we have live music!); occasional passages where a corps member was more worried about catching up than dancing. No biggie, considering that the show clocks in at three+ hours.

The numerous fabulous moments more than compensated. We are talking full-body chills, firework oohs and ahs, and (even from the manly man sitting next to me one night) soft little sighs of contentment.

Jonathan Porretta as the Jester, a signature role he has
kept honing, even though his 2003 debut in the role
wowed the audience. (photo © Angela Sterling)

The ballet opens at the court of Prince Siegfried. Choreographer Kent Stowell has packed the great hall full of interesting characters to watch, and PNB’s actor-dancers play the roles with skill.

How wonderfully cold and abrupt Carrie Imler is as the Queen Mother when her son shows little interest in fulfilling her wish that he marry someone soon.

How fun the relationship between the Jester and Wolfgang (Jonathan Porretta and Jordan Pacitti): they end Act I à la Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains from the end of Casablanca.

And the range of interpretation among the charming Princes! For example, in dealing with the bevy of beauties in Act I, Lucien Postlewaite had a “Dude! All for me?” quality, Stanko Milov accorded them regal regard, and Karel Cruz radiated the bemused, humble charm of a nerdy kid who shows up for ninth grade to find that he somehow turned into a hunk over summer vacation.

There are 50 characters onstage in Act I, and more than that in Act III…let’s move on.

Clad in Paul Tazewell’s gorgeous costumes, the dancers create pictures that could grace the most beautiful of gilt-edged fairytale books. Ming Cho Lee’s stark, beautiful sets offer an interesting contrast. Each time the curtain rose on opening night, the audience applauded the overall effect.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the sets, the company’s scene shop had to put forth a major effort to realize them: everything is purposely five degrees off-kilter. The result is a little unsettling, with the stage seeming to slant to one side. In Act I, the slant hints that this happy birthday party is part of a grimmer fairy tale. In Act III, the wall of window panes makes the slant even more apparent, showing a world askew as Odile and Baron von Rothbart work their diabolic scheme. The eeriness is ratcheted up a few levels when the French doors open at the end of the scene: because of the angle, the doors seem to hang off their hinges and the set’s distortion becomes a visual comment on the lovers’ doomed romance.

Act I (like Act III) is fraught with gratuitous dancing, which suits me just fine. For one thing, so many of the dancers actually get to dance. We love our corps and it’s fun to get to know them better as individual dancers. Most can’t hold the McCaw Hall stage by themselves yet, but in this context that’s a moot point. Everybody wins.

One of my favorite let’s-provide-entertainment-for-the-prince moments is the Act I pas de trois, which purportedly was choreographed by Petipa back in 1895. It is charming, still fresh, exciting, and hard. Benjamin Griffiths stood in for Batkhurel Bold on opening night, and he performed the amazing jumps with great skill. He joined Maria Chapman and Lesley Rausch again on Saturday night. This time, the trio worked together even better, beaming (but not overdoing it) with spring and joy. (Porretta danced in the pas de trois the following night; he is so cat-quiet that at one point, when the music was soft, you still couldn’t hear him land. You could, however, in this auditorium that seats 2,900, actually hear the beating of his feet in the air.)

PNB company dancers (photo © Angela Sterling)
Act II: the swans!
This act’s choreography is primarily Ivanov’s, from that same 1895 production. It’s gorgeous. Francia Russell worked a minor miracle getting the women’s corps ready for it. Compare this to their performance in Diamonds a few months ago! Here, they work as a team (flock?), showing the intricate patterns clearly. They achieve beauty in unison, each, for the most part, angling her head, shoulder, arms, and legs just like her neighbor. There is, all around, more grace. They danced well, with moments of breathtaking beauty.

There is so much to love in Act II, not the least of which is the part where the swans divebomb the Prince’s hunting pals. (The men, some with arms over their heads, run up centerstage, between the rushing swans. It’s hilarious.)

Act II is where we first see Odette, the lead swan. Kaori Nakamura danced the role brilliantly opening night; Carla Körbes positively floated through Friday evening’s performance; and on Saturday evening, Louise Nadeau, who retires this season, gave the touching performance her fans had come to see. (I skipped a long-awaited party to be there, the woman sitting next to me had swapped her subscription ticket specifically to see Nadeau, and the full-house audience included Russell, Stowell, Patricia Barker, and other stars of Seattle’s dance scene.)

Each Odette has a different take on the character and each highlights different steps. Just as I will always think of Patricia Barker’s timing and intent during the series of piqué and chaîné turns that end Odette’s solo in this act, now, too, I will think of the stretch of Nakamura’s extension, the care with which Körbes places her feet, and the timid flutter of Nadeau’s arms.

Kaori Nakamura (photo © Angela Sterling)
The three dancers I saw all managed the dual personality aspect of the Odette/Odile role well: their Odiles (the black swan in Act III) wouldn’t really have tricked the Prince, but they were effective. Nakamura was glittery and victorious, and she used her acclaimed technique viciously well. Körbes smiled evilly (you could almost hear her “Muahahahaaaaahhh” when the game’s up) and she touched the air as though it were caressing her back. Nadeau was cold, cold, cold—hard and sharp.

The Princes had their moments in Act III. Postlewaite, Milov, and Cruz are all good jumpers, so the bravura bits were extremely satisfying. Postlewaite got so much height on one of his leaping entrances that it looked as though someone had launched him. Milov seems to live for jumping—and for landing a jump perfectly—so it’s always a pleasure to watch him. And Cruz, with his long legs, completely blew the audience away; he just hangs up there in the air, suspended somehow.

Other best moments of Act III?

At one point, the Queen forces the Prince to dance with the foreign princesses. Postlewaite’s reaction here reminded me again what a great actor he is: he moves from arguing with Mommy Dearest…to approaching the princesses with politeness…to giving them his arm with barely concealed anger.

Stacy Lowenberg and Jerome Tisserand led the Czardas with proud and appropriately graceful gravitude on opening night.

The opening night Spanish Dance was particularly effective (Kylee Kitchens, Josh Spell, Lindsi Dec, and Pacitti).

In the Neapolitan Dance opening night, Jodie Thomas and Griffiths worked to bring a clean specificity to the fast steps. The next night, Chalnessa Eames and James Moore made it look like the funnest thing in the world to dance. And on Saturday night the audience got a rare onstage smile from Rachel Foster. (We’ve seen Foster in so many wonderful modern pieces the past year or two. Her focus tends to be more inward, though, so it’s nice to see her reach across the footlights. She made the cover of Dance in January.)

The Persian Dance will always remind me of Ariana Lallone, who is scheduled to dance it this Saturday and Sunday evening; she makes it exotic and mysterious. Chapman danced it well on Thursday night; her Saturday performance was even better, since she didn’t rush, but instead held positions until the last possible moment. Lowenberg took on the role beautifully Friday night, making sense of some of the stranger movements and changing my opinion of the piece for the better.

Carla Körbes with former PNB dancer Casey Herd
(photo © Angela Sterling)

The flash and brilliance of Act III give way to the tragic separation of the lovers in Act IV.

The program says this act is entirely Stowell’s choreography. It’s lovely; it might rank as his best work. Right in front of us, dance meets drama, and the music carries us all away. The poor betrayed Odette, her protective swans, the horrified Prince, the menacing Baron von Rothbart…plus some lightning and fog just for good measure. A perfect ending.*

* The video clip linked here shows, I think, Louise Nadeau and Jeffrey Stanton from an earlier production. Click here for PNB’s full video clip.)

To read other Swan Lake reviews, check out PNB’s Press Room.

PNB dedicated opening night to former ArtsFund director Peter F. Donnelly who passed away at the end of March.