NYCB Swan Lake: Low Energy on Valentine’s Day

Peter Martins resigned as Ballet Master in Chief from New York City Ballet in 2018, but his full-length productions live on: Swan Lake, Romeo+Juliet, and Sleeping Beauty. I like his more traditional Sleeping Beauty; however, I an undecided on which I dislike more, Swan Lake or Romeo+Juliet, both marred by ghastly sets and costumes by Per Kirkeby. The Romeo+Juliet backdrops are strange abstract creations, sometimes resembling spray paint can graffiti, making it difficult to distinguish scenes. It does not help that the flow of the work is disjointed at times in this two-act ballet filled with repetitive steps.

Martins’ Swan Lake debuted in 1996 with The Royal Danish Ballet and 1999 with NYCB. Martins’ Swan Lake has fairly standard choreography; what sets it apart, and not in a good way, is the minimalist costumes and sets by Kirkeby. In Act I, the audience is greeted by an explosion of ugliness: a strange orange/yellow backdrop rather than the traditional village scene background. Male dancers wear simple bright-colored shirts rather than 18th century appropriate attire with Prince Siegfried clad in blue with black accents and boots. The first act backdrop doesn’t look suitable for a village scene but more of an abstract ballet. While the setting of the Act I Lake Scene is relatively traditional, Act II does not resemble a palace, but a library filled with empty bookshelves.

Aside from aesthetics, the choreography is somewhat standard Swan Lake, with many segments similar to the American Ballet Theatre version. However Martins opted to simplify several steps: taking out the six beats in the assemble from the first female soloist in the Pas de Trois; removing the overhead lift in the Lakeside pas de deux and inserting a simple shoulder sit; deleting double tours to arabesque in Siegfried’s second Act II solo in lieu of simple assembles. Unlike the ABT version, Martins’ Swan Lake makes use of a Jester in Act I, a gimmick that distracts from the flow of the story.

The company opened its Swan Lake 12-performance run  with Sara Mearns and National Ballet of Canada Principal Dancer Guillaume Côté, subbing for an injured Tyler Angle. The Valentine’s Day performance was competent but low on energy and distinction. Sara and Guillaume were fine technically but lacked a powerful bond, understandable given that he took on the role about two weeks ago (they also performed Sunday afternoon in a performance I missed). The pas de deux was well done with no issues, but there was no sense of connection. For the solo work, Sara opted for 29 single fouettés, but could not pull in at the end and instead finished out the music with chaîné turns. There was nothing off kilter in Guillaume’s solo work, but like most of the work by NYCB men, scored low on the WOW! factor meter.

Other roles lacked energy. Silas Farley as the evil Von Rothbart did not leave much of a mark and was dull at times. The Pas de Trois from Erica Pereira, Brittany Pollack, Spartak Hoxha (subbing for Aaron Sanz) was workmanlike and lacked distinction.

NYCB Swan Lake

Daniel Ulbricht as the Jester. Click for more photos.

I am not a fan of the Jester, but Daniel Ulbricht provided fireworks. In his late 30s, he has unfortunately not escaped Jester/Puck roles and has not advanced to leading roles. He displayed nice, extended pirouette en dehors, elevated double tours, and articulated beats. Particularly interesting was a traveling diagonal of entrechat six — also, an innovative pirouettes á la seconde that changed tempo from fast to slow.

Koch Theater was mostly full with some empty orchestra seats with some occupied seats in the high up fifth ring. The crowd was subdued as Guillaume’s Act I entrance did not register any applause, and Sara and Guillaume just managed to eke out a second curtain call at the end. 

Check back next weekend for more thoughts on four of the six Swan Lake casts.