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ABT's Swan Lake: Lessons of the Heart.

DETAILS ARE everything, and little things mean a lot when it comes to ballet.

Take one moment among many at the heart of Swan Lake, Odette's heartbreaking lakeside narration in-Act Two when she reveals to Prince Siegfried that she was not always what she now seems, that she once was a happy young woman.

Even if some of the scene's pantomime is irretrievably lost ... say, Odette's explanation that her mother was a good fairy or the libretto's original intimation that the evil Von Rothbart is really Odette's stepmother ... the dancers must still be given the chance, in the pas d'action as well as in the purely classical scenes, both to mirror Tchaikovsky's delicate key progressions and to communicate the tale's conflicting emotions.

That is not always the case. Several major productions in current repertory from St. Petersburg to San Francisco streamline that narration into oblivion, while still other versions of Swan Lake appear downright embarrassed to be telling a fairy tale at all.

At the Bolshoi, birthplace of Swan Lake, rending asunder the shackles of communism has meant falling for Freudianism's bizarre mysteries. Vladimir Vasiliev's recent production for the Bolshoi Ballet introduces the character of the Prince's father, doubling as Von Rothbart and competing with his son for the same woman. It does not really work.

"It all depends on what you are used to," said Kevin McKenzie, whose new version of Swan Lake for American Ballet Theatre is set for a world premiere March 24 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. "We have a real story to tell."

"Every company needs a Swan Lake, especially a company like ABT," said McKenzie. "We of course have a Swan Lake, but it is already more than 30 years old," he added, swiftly skipping over Mikhail Baryshnikov's 1988 version. "Misha really first revised the old David Blair production," said McKenzie. "Then he did his own production, but when he left he didn't want to renew the rights" that would have allowed ABT to continue presenting it. "And it became clear that we need a new production one way or another, so I thought to myself: You know what? I've been here long enough that, using David Blair's production as a springboard, I should do my own production." This is news. McKenzie, much like Lucia Chase before him, is an unusual artistic director in that his ego takes a back seat to his company's welfare. He is modest and self-effacing, much as he was when he danced. He also is credited with ABT's considerable artistic and financial renaissance, with putting the "theatre" back in American Ballet Theatre. His success has been one of the most exhilarating spectacles in American culture of recent years, an especially impressive performance given that ABT had been nearly given up for lost only a decade ago. To sit and talk with McKenzie and his dancers, amid the percussive pianos and sweaty classes in ABT's warren of dance studios in Manhattan, is to feel hopeful about and proud of the future of what I consider to be the country's premier ballet company.

With his new Swan Lake, McKenzie may have found the role of his life. "I am really a traditionalist. And, if anything, I tend to overcompensate on the theatrical side," McKenzie said. His Act One will be close to Blair's in structure--and thus to Petipa's--and rechoreographed from the ground up: Everything from the Maypole so beloved by ABT audiences to the Queen Mother's pantomime indelibly associated with Lucia Chase will be there, but with a difference.

"I wouldn't dream of eliminating the pantomime," McKenzie said. "I feel it is very important for Odette to tell her story. In fact, I want to refine it, to make it clear that what happened to Odette took place hundreds of years before the story even begins.

"I am even planning to give the audience a glimpse, in the Prologue, of Odette as a young woman before the spell: That will make it even more touching when she tells the Prince, `I was not always this way,' and it will make his falling in love with her that much more moving," he said. "Frankly," he added, "I think one big difference will be that the way I made sense of the ballet as Siegfried when I danced it will become more evident in the whole production."

McKenzie's sense of the ballet is that it is really "about terrible choices we face. What happened to Odette is way in the past, and what drives the tragedy is Siegfried's present dilemma, the impossibility of marrying his ideal--and his reality. Swan Lake is not just a fairytale."

The prospect of a new production of Swan Lake, if the recent fate of this masterpiece is any indication, can be downright unsettling, given the productions that have made their way to the world's stages, from Peter Martins's strangely unaffecting version in an abstract landscape for New York City Ballet, to Matthew Bourne's electrifying deconstruction, with its hunky danseurs in feathered legwarmers. And then there were the various Russian holdovers from the Soviet days, when a happy ending was considered uplifting, even as the entire prospect of telling a story was thought a thing of the past.

"I danced one of those communist productions with a happy ending with Malakhov once in Finland," recalled Julie Kent, who will dance the role of Odette-Odile at the Kennedy Center world premiere. "I still don't know what happened at the end. Nobody died. We all just sort of finished in a nice group picture."

That can be very pretty, but pretty dancing is not what Swan Lake is about. "The fact that Odette is this creature, a woman under a spell, is just decoration," said Kent. "What transports the audience beyond the realm of fairy tales is that Swan Lake, like Giselle, contains emotional truths that people can relate to throughout the centuries. It is about love, betrayal, fate and forgiveness. There's nothing fascinating about any fairy tale unless it reveals something deeper, lessons we need to remember, lessons of the heart."

Susan Jaffe, who will dance the New York premiere of McKenzie's Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House May 19, likes "some of the newfangled versions of Swan Lake, but they are not going to last. There has to be something straightforward and very simple in the ballet, something you can go back to. Kevin really is a traditionalist, and I think that's great. That means we have a chance to keep looking for the truth on stage."

Jaffe and Kent, just two of the constellation of ABT ballerinas who will debut in McKenzie's Swan Lake this season, agree that it is about more than steps. "There are in. finite details in a role like Odette or Giselle that let you grow," said Kent. "There are infinite possibilities. You have to remember that one of the reasons Swan Lake has beer around all this time is not just that audiences are interested in seeing it, but also that dancers are interested in dancing it You have to love a ballet to give it as much as Swan Lake needs."

Jaffe, who regularly works with an acting coach as well as with her dance teachers at ABT, recalled how she "used to think it was all about how well I could make this line, or how perfectly I could execute this or that step. I was miserable Then I got it: it's about the human spirit, about the intention of the character, about who she is, about the energy that comes across. Of course I always work on technique, but now I don't even think about the steps." That realization also made performing easier. "When you are inside the character," said Jaffe, "You don't have room for nerves."

Swan Lake is a great dance play, but it has no established version. It has become a corrupt text, with countless additions, cuts and changes ossifying into tradition over the years. The 1895 choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Maryinsky--which left behind Julius Reisinger's 1877 original choreography for the Bolshoi--has been revised here, mangled there. Mikhail Mordkin, who later taught the ballerinas Alicia Alonso and Nora Kaye at Ballet Theatre, staged the first version in the United States in 1911, the same year that Michel Fokine rechoreographed his own version for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes at Covent Garden. Later, at the height of the Cold War, there were thirty different productions in the Soviet Union, the most prominent and most often revised being Konstantin Sergeyev's 1950 version for the Kirov.

In the New World, Alicia Alonso, Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova, in addition to ABT's Blair, created influential productions. But the best of these was Anthony Dowell's for the Royal Ballet, still in its repertory. Despite Yolanda Sonnabend's problematic and decidedly unlovely sets, Dowell and his team of musicologists and choreologists brought to life to what history will note as the late 20th century's clearest and most loving vision of this 19th century classic. Now McKenzie and American Ballet Theatre are taking a great tradition into a new century.

McKenzie's version promises to avoid the hurdles created by Dowell's Swan Lake, which was set not in gothic Germany but in Tchaikovsky's St. Petersburg, making history an intruder in what should have been a timeless story. "There is a problem with looking at the tale from a 19th century Russian perspective," said McKenzie, "because we all know who was the ruler, and it was not anyone called Prince Siegfried. We solved the problem by keeping the story in the 15th century but with a very painterly, Pre-Raphaelite look. It will be as if from the 19th century looking back."

Enter Zack Brown, the design wizard responsible for ABT's luminous production of Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. Though celebrated chiefly for his opera designs, Brown may been most at home at the ballet. His Swan Lake sets and costumes, informed not just by the overripe sensibility of the Pre-Raphaelites but also by Gustave Moreau and other decadents, look breathtaking on paper. His Von Rothbart in particular may be surprising. "The idea of his being an owl always seemed comical to me," said Brown. "Kevin wanted something more elemental, a creature of nature. We made him a Dionysian figure from a past civilization, completely different." The conflict between the Dionysian and Apollonian sides of human nature are the very soul of Prince Siegfried's dilemma.

"And it all came together for me once I accepted that Von Rothbart really is the Devil," said McKenzie. "He is evil incarnate, senseless, just there always. He is a shape-shifter, because evil comes in many forms, including seductive. He has to be drop-dead gorgeous. And he is what forces Prince Siegfried to face the terrible fact that he cannot have what he most wants."

These are heady issues that go beyond the questions of what ballet is and what it ought to be. In a parochial dance world that plays down the role of narrative ballet, this may be the occasion to reconsider the role of George Balanchine's so-called abstract dances in today's repertory and perhaps to rediscover the work of the other great genius of the Balanchine generation, Antony Tudor, together with the entire enterprise of dramatic ballet. Everyone except critics seems to love story ballets, even as many American critics betray an inordinate fondness for ballets devoid of dramatic content. Are such favorites as Giselle, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake the highest achievements of an art form or simply guilty pleasures in which an audience must be indulged? Are modern narrative dances such as William Forsythe's Orpheus, Lar Lubovitch's Othello or Roland Petit's Clavigo somehow not as important or successful as the less obviously dramatic short ballets that highlight most ballet subscriptions? The tide is turning on some of these questions, and the growth of ABT's dramatic ballet repertory is a good context for looking back at our recent past.

"Frankly, even the idea of abstract ballet never made sense to me," said McKenzie. "When I was a dancer, I never really wanted just a meaty dancing part. I always wanted a role. I have been very lucky" As a dancer and as a company director, he happily has found it difficult to separate dance and drama, steps and emotion. In this he echoes Tudor, one of his teachers, who "always thought the very idea of an abstract ballet very foolish ... people have to dance it, don't they? How abstract can the human body be?"

Perhaps the most profound philosophical flaw in the argument for abstraction in dance lies in the refusal to recognize the second partner in the phenomenon of dance: the audience. This is not merely a matter of trying to hide the humanity inherent in human movement in favor of the geometry this movement delineates in space. It is also a matter of hiding the humanity of the witness to that movement, of pretending that the audience will not recognize that humanity onstage.

For another view, and for signs of a sea change in American ballet, just listen to an ABT Swan Queen. "What keeps us all interested is not the steps," said Jaffe. "It is not just technique. It's funny, when I started out I had scholarships to both the School of American Ballet and ABT. I chose ABT, because I always wanted to dance Swan Lake and Giselle. The Balanchine repertory is beautiful, but it didn't call for my soul." And that is precisely what great ballet does.

Octavio Roca, a contributing editor of Dance Magazine, is the San Francisco Chronicle's dance critic.
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Title Annotation:American Ballet Theater
Author:ROCA, OCTAVIO
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
Words:2286
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