Review: Misty Copeland in the Washington Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’

April 13, 2015
New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Washington Ballet, founded in 1976 just presented its first full-length “Swan Lake.” This notable fact, however, is not what has gained the production national attention. That would be the casting. At the Kennedy Center here on Thursday and Sunday, the leads of this archetypal classical work were both taken by African-American dancers, one of them an increasingly famous guest star from American Ballet Theater: Misty Copeland.

Brooklyn Mack, in his sixth season with Washington Ballet, was new to the role of Prince Siegfried. It was not quite Ms. Copeland’s first try at the double role of Odette/Odile — that happened last year, on tour with Ballet Theater in Australia — but it was her American debut in the part. (Her New York debut will be on June 24, during Ballet Theater’s season at the Metropolitan Opera House.)

Because it is exceedingly rare — indeed, the Washington Ballet says the casting of two African-Americans in a full-length “Swan Lake” is a first for American ballet — this bucking of stereotypes was dramatic, more dramatic than it should be. The performance I saw on Sunday, alas, had the opposite problem: drama was missing.

The production is admirable in many ways. The properly chivalric sets and costumes, borrowed from Ballet West, are merely adequate, but the Evermay Chamber Orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s great score with vivid distinction. There were sprightly, sparkling performances all through the Washington ranks, particularly in the pas de trois of Acts I and II.

Kirk Peterson’s staging, which he describes in the program as “an attempt at restoration” based on the 1934 Sadler’s Wells version of the 1895 St. Petersburg production, is particularly meritorious. It does not stint on mime, not even for the swan corps, and the clarity of much of that mime is proven by the audience’s laughter. Dramatically cogent, this “Swan Lake” is rich in refurbished dance detail. (Ballet nerds take note: At the end of Odile’s adagio, she grips one of Siegfried’s knees as she balances in arabesque penchée. Have you seen that before?)

Mr. Mack, while broad-chested and appealingly easygoing, was less than regal. His big jumps landed with a thud, and his acting was close to blank. He squired Ms. Copeland securely, but there was no chemistry between them.

Her dancing was scrupulous. Although her fouetté turns wandered as if windblown, all of her shapes were beautifully lucid, with a softness borne of strength. This meticulousness, though, remained mechanical. Her Odile wasn’t much of a seductress; her Odette was coldly static, lacking in tragic force.

And so the show was admirable, rather than affecting. Or what was affecting was the overdue advance in colorblind casting rather than the ballet. Mr. Mack and Ms. Copeland have broken barriers. Now we can see whether they can make the roles their own.

Correction: April 16, 2015
A dance review on Tuesday about a performance of “Swan Lake” by the Washington Ballet at the Kennedy Center in Washington, using information from the program, misstated the year the Washington Ballet was founded. It was 1976 — not 1944, which was the year the Washington School of Ballet was founded. The review also referred imprecisely to the casting of two African-Americans in the lead roles. Dance Theater of Harlem used such casting in presenting one act of the ballet in 1980. Thus, while the Washington Ballet says that its casting for a full-length “Swan Lake” is a first for American ballet, this was not the first time two African-Americans were in the lead roles in an American production.