Nicola and I saw *Swan Lake* at American Ballet Theater on 6/13/17. I've wanted to get more into dance in general and into ballet in particular - - Nicola and I chose this performance because it was starring Misty Copeland, an extraordinary dancer who is the first African-American woman to be a principal dancer in the company's 75-year history. I had seen a great documentary about Copeland (*A Ballerina's Tale,* streaming on Netflix), had seen a couple of TV profiles, and of course I've seen her yogurt commercials. I was curious to see her onstage. Here's a great *60 Minutes* piece on her from 2015:
*Swan Lake* is a ballet from 1875 with a score by Tchaikovsky. The choreography in this ABT production was by Kevin McKenzie after the 1895 Bolshoi choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It's fascinating to me that the Petipa and Ivanov choreography has been handed down over all of these years.
The performance was at the Metropolitan Opera, the Met has been ABT's New York home for 40 years. We had a celebrity sighting in the lobby: Michael Kors! We were tickled that everyone was so blasé about that, no one appeared to be paying any special attention to him. Yawn.
You know how I weep at the theatre, over anything that's sublime or extraordinary. I was a freaking faucet at both of the performances of *Shuffle Along,* it surprised me a little how unglued I was by the dancing in that show. Of course I was expecting to be a weepy mess at this show - - ABT is one of the greatest ballet companies on earth, the Tchaikovsky score throbs with emotion, and Copeland is bursting with talent and magic. But there were no tears. My breathing got a little shallow in one moment in the second act: Copeland made an entrance to a long unaccompanied solo by the harp, soon joined by a divine violin solo, but I think that was due more to the music than to the dancing (I'm a sucker for harp, and Ben Bowman played his violin solos with guts and panache).
I think the tears were absent because this was more of an intellectual experience for me, not an emotional one. I was perplexed and a little tickled by the traditions of ballet. Of course opera (my art form of choice) is heavy with tradition, and there's some overlap, but at first blush opera seems to have more interest in a story. Yes, there's plenty of display in opera, but with the text, you get the feeling that they're telling a story in a more explicit way. Ballet seems to have a lot more display, less story. But then I tried to think of an example in a standard repertoire opera that's just about display, and I came up with "Libiamo" in *Traviata.* Yes, the soprano and the tenor seem to be checking each other out for the first time, but what are they actually singing to each other? They're saying, "Let's have a drink." That's not what I call storytelling on a high level.
The thing that shocked me about ballet was this: we often applaud at the opera, when a big number ends. It's usually built into the score, the break for applause. But the singer would never BOW in the middle of the performance! That happened early in *Swan Lake*: the prince's wingman did a <<pas de trois>> with two ballerinas, the audience applauded, and the three of them bowed. At first I thought they were bowing to the prince, who was watching from the side, but no, they were bowing to us, to the audience! This happened over and over, I never quite got used to it.
Copeland often bowed at the end of a showy solo, and the rabid audience was taking every opportunity to applaud her and scream their heads off, but her bows were always done in a tasteful way, she always stayed in character - - it was Odette or Odile taking the bow, not Copeland herself. This was the thing that was most impressive about Copeland to me, the way that she communicated character and emotion in her dancing. Clearly she's technically proficient, she wouldn't be able to get through the role without having first-class technique. But it was the artistry and finesse rather than the technical éclat that struck me. Nicola loved how her hands were so expressive - - it felt like she was dancing all the way to the ends of her fingertips.
There was one moment - - let's not say it was a disappointment, that would be overstating it, let's just say that I noticed it. The prima ballerina in *Swan Lake* always plays two roles: Odette, the nice girl, the white swan, the martyr, and Odile, the bad girl, the black swan, the floozy. The floozy has a famous moment in her <<pas de deux>> with the prince, where she does 32 consecutive fouettés. Here's a video of Galina Mezentseva doing the <<pas de deux>> - - sorry, I don't know who the male dancer is. The 32 fouettés come in at 9:00:
Copeland twirled around endlessly, but she was twirling more slowly, not in time to the music, she maybe only did about 20 or 24. I'm not complaining, and of course I personally will never do one SINGLE fouetté, let alone 20 or 24 - - I'm just sayin'. The best thing about her Odile was how different it was from her Odette: Odette was vulnerability personified, fragile, delicate, heart-breaking. Odile was a cold-hearted enchantress, she knew what she was doing and she went out there and did it. Copeland's movements were snappy and sharp and her overall demeanor was full of bitchy hauteur. Brava diva!
Herman Cornejo was Prince Siegfried. He danced beautifully, he has star power, he commanded the stage, and he and Copeland were touching in their many duets. Nicola and I were both tickled by James Whiteside, who played the handsome version of the villain (Patrick Ogle played the ogre). Whiteside's costume was a purple and green leotard, a fabulous pair of thigh-high purple boots (I think Nicola was looking for those boots on Zappos the next day), and best of all, a long satin cape, purple on one side and green on the other. Let me tell you, he knew how to work that cape! He flung that mutha about like a real pro, it was hilarious, even (especially) during his bows at the end of the performance. Nicola said, "I love that guy, he was so EXTRA!"
One of my favorite performances was by Nancy Raffa as Siegfried's mother, the Queen Mother. She had what was, for me, the most hilarious moment of the performance. Most of the time the story of the ballet is told through the dancing itself - - like the first act (before the appearance of Odette) is all about Prince Siegfried needing to find a wife. There's a scene where he dances with about eight different women in succession, sort of kicking the tires. At one point the music mellowed out, the lights dimmed and got a little rosy, and two dancers (a man and a woman) came on from the side. They were tender with each other and he raised his hand in a way that clearly meant, "What a lovely evening!" He kissed her hand, and they danced back offstage. Prince Siegfriend watched this whole little scena, and you could feel his longing, that he wanted some of that.
But there were also puzzling moments of what I'll call sign language, moments where a dancer was saying something more literal, and therefore more puzzling, since the dancer (obviously) wasn't speaking with words. Nancy Raffa had the best of these moments. She brushed her right hand past her nose, drew her left hand across her mouth, and leaned back in ecstasy, widening and then closing her eyes, smile beaming, both hands waving rhapsodically, floating in the air. I couldn't quite figure out what she was saying to Prince Siegfried, and decided that she was saying, "I woke up with a runny nose this morning, but I took a Zicam and now I feel great!"
My other favorite unintentionally comic moment was in the second act, in the famous <<pas de quatre.>> Four swans, their hands interwoven, are prancing their way around the stage.
At one point (at about 1:20 in this performance) they go from one end of the stage to the other and in the performance we saw, they seemed to get pretty close to the line of immobile ballerinas on the side. I pictured the solo dancer on the left saying to the girl she was approaching, "Peggy, you better move it, I'm about ta run ya over!"