Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack headline Washington Ballet's Swan Lake

April 14, 2015
Backtracks

The Washington Ballet's first full-length Swan Lake in its 70-year history, partnered by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra in its first foray through Tchaikovsky’s mythical topography, did something wondrous at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater last week – quite apart from the magic that transpired on stage. It enticed a remarkably young, diverse and hip crowd into the theatre. For that achievement alone, keepers of the ballet flame should sing hallelujah. A mix of aficionados and ballet virgins – the latter lured, in part, by the celebrity of guest star Misty Copeland, Under Armour spokesmodel and author of a provocative memoir – packed the house for the seven-performance run, during which Copeland appeared twice, in a rare African-American pairing with Brooklyn Mack.

There was much to be thankful for in this staging by Kirk Peterson, who researched Sergeyev’s 1934 production at Sadlers Wells to capture key elements of Petipa and Ivanov’s original choreography.

The 26 musicians assembled expressly for this run, under the baton of Nabil Shehata, delivered a rich sound that thundered and shimmered and wept appropriately.

The tragic tale, so often mangled and needlessly embroidered, is told simply and convincingly, with the delightful deployment of mime – notably by the swan corps in Act IV as they telegraph their concern for the missing swan queen.

There is an old-fashioned Hollywood silent era film star quality to the swan deportment: the delicately smoldering looks, the soft arms, the deep bows from the waist. On the spectrum from creature to human, these swans are human-leaning; Aurora Dickie and Kateryna Derechyna, Sunday’s lead swans, embodied this aesthetic beautifully.

Prince Siegfried is portrayed as a bit of a lad, a skirt-chaser, who lies to his mother about his drinking. His dejected Act I solo expresses dismay at having to give up his carefree lifestyle. Debuting in the role, Brooklyn Mack got off to a shaky start on Sunday evening, but soon showed off the princely bearing and technique required for the role – bracing lines in arabesque, soaring jumps, clean landings from double tours en l'air and double turning assemblées, and demonic grandes pirouettes – as well as a youthful impetuousness that made it easier to comprehend and forgive his terrible betrayal of Odette in Act III. He could not, however, summon up the depth of emotion required at the denouement.

In Act IV, Peterson sends Odette and the Prince off a cliff in a double suicide, upon which the outraged brigade of swan maidens turn on the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, and piqué arabesque him to death. Swan Lake endings do not get any more satisfying than this.

Peterson streamlines the Act III court scene, replacing the national dances with a sprightly pas de trois, mirroring the Act I pas de trois at Siegfried’s birthday celebration. Splendid dancing in both by Miguel Anaya, Maki Onuki, Tamako Miyazaki and Ayano Kimura brought down the house on Sunday night.

In a masterful stroke, Tamaki Kawakubo, Evermay’s concertmaster, stepped in front of the curtain before it rose on Act III, clasping her violin, to play the beguiling Russian dance from Act III (one of the national dances that Peterson omits). Clad in shimmering black silk with a hint of fringe, the lithe and ravishing Kawakubo, with her masterful bowing, presaged the arrival of the seductress Odile.

Though she debuted as Odette-Odile last September on tour with American Ballet Theatre in Australia, Copeland is still largely untested in lead classical roles. She displayed some brittleness of technique in her first encounter with Siegfried, and the big split lifts in the adagio did not appear as effortless as they should have. The rest of the partnering proceeded smoothly, if occasionally lacking in reckless ardor. Copeland’s finest moments in Act II began with the tiny, rapid, insistent fluttering of her foot against the other ankle, as Mack steadied her, moving through a slow developpé and finishing with a series of slow pirouettes; this tremulous expression of fear and longing is repeated several times, heightening the sense of conflicting emotions. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this sequence executed so exquisitely.
Copeland’s fiercely chiseled legs, so beautiful in hyperextension, her steely insteps, finely honed arms, and supple spiraling of neck and shoulders, are all harnessed poetically in the lakeside scenes, and with a flintier edge in the Act III transformation to Odile.

Her Odile is radiant, confident in her allure, but no grotesque caricature of evil (as some ballerinas portray her). Copeland whips out the big extensions, but punctuates flashy movements with small glittering steps that add intrigue to Odile’s personality. Confronted with the traditional challenge of the 32 fouettés, Copeland completed about half of the whipping turns then transitioned seamlessly to a series of very fast single pirouettes; we could almost see the smoke rising from the floor with each vehement downward thrust. It is an intelligent choice if fouettés start to go wild, perfectly in keeping with the character.

The hype surrounding Copeland and Mack’s casting betrays the astonishing narrow-mindedness of the ballet world’s tastemakers in the face of a dwindling audience. Ballet is a cruel business, and Copeland and Mack have precious little time in which to perfect their technique and dramatic skill, to build the confidence that will free them to dance these roles with true passion and abandon, before their own careers are over. While they’re thus occupied, they should not have to break barriers for other young dancers of color.