Several times during Friday evening’s Swan Lake in which Ulyana Lopatkina danced the role of Odette/Odile, Haglund wondered whether the performance had been photoshopped. The degree of perfection in terms of – well, let’s summarize – in terms of everything that is important to a performance of Odette/Odile was nearly unbelievable.
First there was the perfect physical instrument – a 5’9” IMAX ballerina whose artistic resolution is the clearest on the planet at the moment and whose divine interpretation was pixelated from a palette of the most complex saturated colors. Bigger. Than. Life.
Then there was the unwavering conviction to academic principles, a faithfulness to the beauty of classicism – ballet’s scientific method that must be employed to reveal the truth within Petipa’s classics.
When Lopatkina made her first entrance as Odette in Act II, she did not repeat the mistake of Viktoria Tereshkina the night before who landed her grand jete with a loud thud. Rather, the force of the impact with the less than optimal stage floor was squeezed through her foot and ankle softening the landing after which her arms floated back behind her with a slight flutter. The entrance was magnificent. Lopatkina has so much length in the arms that when she gently touched the backs of her wrists together overhead in the iconic swan movement, she still maintained an elegant roundness in the port de bras.
Swan Lake is as much about what Odette/Odile does with her arms and upper body as with her feet and legs – a fact lost on those who are pushing American portrayals toward punchy, muscly exaggerated caricatures. While many American performers struggle – if they even try at all – to find the clear first position of the arms and coordinate everything else from it, that natural eloquence seems to be bred into each Mariinsky ballerina’s being. Every principal's, soloist's, and corps dancer’s wrists broke with the same gentle elegance. Every hand was shaped the same way in order to extend the line of the arm. The coordination was textbook perfect and amounted to a masterclass in why and how arms and hands matter in classical ballet.
Ms. Lopatkina gave a dramatically generous performance of Odette. Her limbs and bending torso communicated an unexpected vulnerability and sadness. At times she looked out toward the balcony with eyes pleading for help. The intimate setting of the BAM opera house allowed us such a close reading of her artistry that, again, details became visible as though on an IMAX screen.
As magnificent as her Odette entrance was for its sheer beauty, her arrival as Odile was equally magnificent for its unexpected and excited rush for game. Standing atop her pointes, she was a giant force of sparkling black beauty, red hair, and teasing eyes. Again, her coordination was supreme. The sequences of double pirouette, en dehors attitude turn that ended in plie had an element of reckless daring without an iota of caution or uncertainty. She was an all-powerful evil diva on the order of Maleficent who would toy with Prince Siegfried and then turn away from him disgusted. Finally, this glorious 41-year-old mother of a teenager who has come to epitomize the 21st century Mariinsky ballerina, sent Siegfried and the audience over the top with a blast of 32 fouettes (with 32 releves) that were performed on the proverbial quarter coin. All in all, a most impressive performance.
Yevgeny Ivanchenko as Prince Siegfried did all that he needed to make sure that Lopatkina gave an extraordinary performance. His interpretation of Siegfried was classic Kirov/Mariinsky in which the character was secondary to the ballerina’s role. There were no flashy dramatics or spontaneous improv that we have become addicted to in the West. Every step, every gesture, every brow movement was by the book and beautifully so. Ivanchenko conveyed the Prince’s melancholy with the type of understatement that one would expect from royalty. While the princesses from whom he was to select a wife danced joyfully, his slow but continuous gesturing at the side told his story of uncertain commitment. While it was easy to recognize in parts of his performance where his technique could have been stronger – the right arm in his preparations for double tours became vertical to his chest and the shapes of his grand jetes were a bit rough – this artist who has been dancing with the Mariinsky for 23 years retains beautiful classical lines and a velvety smooth texture in his dancing. Above all, his rapport with Lopatkina and their obvious joy in dancing together gave the performance an extra richness.
The Corps de Ballet did not disappoint. They were everything one expected to see in a Mariinsky corps but still snatched the breath away with their beauty. When the curtain rose on Act IV, the tableau of the groupings of swans by the lake was an exquisite geometry of port de bras lines crossing atop the circular shapes of the tutus. Again, to see this in the intimate setting of the BAM opera house was an exceptional opportunity. Of course, the close vantage point sometimes had its drawbacks. From his seat in the Mezzanine, Haglund observed all of the mechanical devices involved with the pretty scenery swans that swam across the back of the stage. Then there was the shoe sound bouncing off the stage floor….
What can be added to “perfect” for the four Cygnets? The sound of their shoes was perceptible also, but it was so narrow that it sounded like the shoes of a single dancer.
Among the national dances, Olga Belik and especially Boris Zhurilov stood out in the Hungarian Dance. Zhurilov is quite the charismatic dynamo, and as we saw yesterday in his Summer variation in Cinderella, he has some big technical chops, too.
This Joker character who shows up in various productions of Swan Lake sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. In this Mariinsky version, the character mostly worked because – aside from his spectacular dancing – he actually helped move the story along. He was charming in his effort to sell the attributes of each princess as the less-than-interested Prince walked down the line assessing them. Yaroslav Baybordin pulled off the character very well if occasionally mussing (but also saving) a landing from a jump.
The Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev sounded magnificent. Now and then, Maestro Gergiev tweeked the tempo oddly in an effort to help the dancers on stage look their best which didn’t always succeed, but overall, it was an enormous pleasure to hear the grand Tchaikovsky score played with the importance and drama that it deserved.
Haglund loves this production including the “happy” ending that has become a faux controversy. What’s the difference between Odette and Siegfried ending up together alive in the present or ending up cooing together in the Hereafter as in other productions? They’re both happy resolutions that occur after Von Rothbart meets his doom. The ripping off of Von Rothbart's wing and his death scene that followed were good theater.
We are very fortunate and grateful that the Mariinsky Ballet brought one of its most famous ballets with its most extraordinary interpreter to New York. As we know, those two events haven't coincided much in recent years. The H.H. Pump Bump Award, a glistening Borgezie Princess Constellation stiletto first position award with 1290 diamonds, goes to Ulyana Lopatkina.