The Bolshoi Ballet’s Swan Lake, performed at Koch Theater at Lincoln Center this past week, has several unappealing features and plot lines, making it difficult to follow. I never thought I would say this, but the Bolshoi’s version makes the ABT version look good. However, great dancing Friday evening by Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin more than made up for the weak version.
This Swan Lake production, which debuted in 1969 and revised in 2001, is from Yuri Grigorovich, one of the leading Russian choreographers over the past 30 years and chief choreographer for the Bolshoi from 1964 to 1995. At age 88, he is currently the ballet master at the company.
In most Swan Lake versions, Odette, a beautiful princess, falls under the spell of von Rothbart, a wicked sorcerer. Throughout the story, von Rothbart controls Odette. In Grigorovich’s version, The Evil Genius focuses on Prince Sigfried rather than Odette. The Evil Genius first appears at the end of the first act out of nowhere. The Prince senses that a mysterious shadow, his alter ego, is at his side mimicking his movements. “The Prince gives in to the pull of his invisible companion and succumbs to the world of his dreams” according to the program notes. I found all of this confusing, not understanding what the Evil Genius represents. Is it Prince Siegfried’s dream? One would need training in Freudian dream interpretation to understand the meaning of all this.
In the concluding lakeside scene of the ABT version, Siegfried discovers Odette and begs her forgiveness after he swears fidelity to Odile. Odette must kill herself, or she will forever be a swan and Siegfried will die with her, breaking von Rothbart’s power over her. They both throw themselves into a lake, and von Rothbart’s power is ended; the lovers are united in life after death. In the Grigorovich version of the lakeside scene, Odette forgives Sigfried, but, in a flurry of activity, the Evil Genius separates the lovers and slams Odette, finishing her off. The curtain falls as Siegfried is alone, grieving the loss of Odette. It is a depressing, confusing, and bad ending.
Another Grigorovich feature is a jester (The Fool), who breaks into the action at inopportune times, disrupting any plot momentum. The dances are pointless and don’t relate to the story. However, I enjoyed Alexander Smoliyaninov’s dancing, with rapid chugs in second position and wide split jetes in Act I, hitch kicks along a diagonal with substantial leg separation, sauté de basques with both legs bent, and a nice 540-type step in Act II.
However, most ballet stories are silly anyway, even in great productions and I try not to take the plots seriously. I never let a disjointed production get in the way of my enjoyment of great dancing, which was on display Friday evening. Olga Smirnova was strong in the Odette role, with her long limbs, supple back, and amble extension. She was both frail and strong as she encountered Prince Siegfried, played by Semyon Chudin. They had a great connection, from the first moment he saw her, as her beauty captivated him. Semyon, who looks like former ABT Soloist Jared Matthews, has a nice line, punctuated by gorgeously pointed feet and great extension, allowing him 180-degree extension on his grand jetes. He looks the part of a regal prince. Interesting that he doesn’t have a gold-plated pedigree; according to the program, he graduated from the Novosibirsk Choreographic College and was a member of Seoul’s Universal Ballet company from 2003-2007. In 2007, he joined Zurich Ballet as a principal dancer and the Bolshoi in 2011.
Their Black Swan pas de deux (pirate videos are available on YouTube) went well and the two were generally expressive, interacting closely. Olga’s extension stood out with a vertical arabesque penchée. However, at times she compromised technique in her arabesque to achieve greater extension. Her turns were fine although she has distinctive arm carriage as she tends to place her arms low with her elbows down. Her fouetté section was fine, starting with a double pirouette followed by fast single fouettés. Semyon’s solos were smooth, starting with double cabrioles to the back, with adequate double tours to an arabesque, to smooth four pirouettes to the knee. He covers substantial ground in his impressive grand jetes and his split is substantial, looking like more than 180 degrees on his ménage grand jetes. He did not do turns a la seconde at the end of the pas de deux as is customary in performances I’ve seen in other companies. Solid and effortless best describe his dancing.
The Evil Genius Artemy Belyakov was entertaining, displaying turns in attitude and showing a sinister demeanor throughout. Friends of the Prince Kristina Kretova and Maria Vinogradova had beautiful solos with relaxed, flowing arms. The woman in the Spanish dance in Act II (no reference in the program) had substantial flair and stood out in the divertissements.
The corps danced in unison and was beautifully expressive. However, their spacing was cramped at times as they didn’t have enough room to dance in the tight Koch Theater stage. A better venue for such a grand production is the cavernous Metropolitan Opera House where ABT performs each spring.