No ballet says "ballet" to the general public more than “Swan Lake.” Of course, everybody knows “The Nutcracker,” but that work seeped into the public’s consciousness as a holiday tradition. “Giselle” is certainly one of the oldest and most beloved works being performed, but how often do we hear the Adolphe Adam score in malls, commercials and elevators?
So it is fitting that the PBS’s Dance in America marks its 30th anniversary with a broadcast of American Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake” on Monday, June 20, at 9pm EDT. It is the first time the series is showing this ballet of ballets (although PBS did broadcast an earlier ABT production, starring Natalia Makarova, by way of its Live from Lincoln Center series).
Dance in America grew out of an idea in the mid-70s to show dance produced in the United States, which was undergoing an explosion at that time (one reason was due to grants made by the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts). For many years, several shows were broadcast each season, bringing us the works of Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey and others. These were wonderful years, both in the theater and on television. But times have changed and Dance in America broadcasts have been held down to just one or two shows a year in recent times.
It also makes sense to produce a show featuring a popular ballet, recorded in high-definition television (HDTV) at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.., which would have a chance of pulling in more than just die-hard ballet viewers.
“’Swan Lake’ is the most popular classical ballet,” said Judy Kinberg, the producer of Dance in America who was present at a preview showing and discussion held July 15 at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. “And now with the advent of high definition we are better able to present it with the wide-screen opulence it deserves. Its timeless story of love, betrayal and forgiveness continues to engage audiences and inspire new generations of dancers.”
ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie’s 2000 staging of “Swan Lake” is a pretty safe pick. It received the luxury casting of Gillian Murphy in the dual role of Odette-Odile, Angel Corella as Prince Siegfried, and Marcelo Gomes and Isaac Stappas as twin-sided von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer. Even the smaller roles are impressively filled, with ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson as The Queen Mother; Frederic Franklin as Wolfgang, tutor to the prince; Herman Cornejo as Benno, the prince’s friend; and Xiomara Reyes and Erica Cornejo filling out the pas de trios.
The production has been discussed on these pages before. On the plus side, McKenzie restored several mime passages that had been excised from previous ABT stagings, including the touching sequence when Odette explains to Prince Siegfried how she became a swan and how she lives on the lake created by her mother’s tears. McKenzie also opts for the traditional unhappy ending and has stayed relatively clear of some of the more psychologically charged scenarios that have made it to the stage under the guise of “Swan Lake.” You know, the ones, where Prince Siegfried is either in love with his mother, his tutor or his stepfather.
However, the split role of von Rothbart has received mixed reviews. In his green rubber suit, von Rothbart was quickly nicknamed “The Swamp Thing,” while in his more seductive guise, he was called “The Purple Pimp.” More egregious, in my opinion, than the plumped up male roles is the complete desecration of the final act as McKenzie has cut most of the music and action.
As far as the broadcast, which was filmed over a three-performance span earlier this year with additional recording taking place for adjustments, McKenzie said he was able to make some changes which would be impossible during a live audience. For example, when von Rothbart switches his personas, he does so seamlessly. And instead of The Swamp Thing clutching a stuffed swan after enchanting Odette, Murphy emerges in her “White Swan” costume.
The quality of filming is unusually brilliant. The direction of Matthew Diamond, a veteran of Dance in America broadcasts, is not too frenetic. There is liberal use of close-ups, but not to the point of distraction. The cameras seem to be on the stage, so you really feel part of the action. The HDTV technology makes ballet steps, especially footwork, unusually bright. The Act I pas de trios gleams like a precious stone. However, it also makes the scenery and costumes (by Zack Brown) look tacky and lackluster.
There’s nothing lackluster about our principals. We’d expect Murphy to be at her peak in the “Black Swan” pas de deux, and she is. Of course, she tossed off multiple turns with little strain. It is in her “White” act that she is most touching, showing off a newly found vulnerability and adagio line.
Again, Corella dances as strongly as we’ve come to count on. His acting makes the most impact, especially with the close-ups. We see his dissatisfaction with his life at court, his melding of minds and bodies in Act II, and his heart on his sleeve in Act III.
Quibble with the idea of a seducer von Rothbart, but one can’t quibble with seeing Gomes and all his testosterone on screen. The scene in which he casts his spell over the court is even creepier on television than it is at the theatre. But at least here we get to see, up close, the dubious (and hilarious) looks he receives from Parkinson’s Queen Mother.
This “Swan Lake” does not break new ground, except technically, but it just might bring in the viewers (and the dollars from DVD and VHS sales) ballet needs to continue its presence on television.
Murphy and Angel Corella head the cast of Dance in America's 'Swan Lake'
with American Ballet Theatre, Monday, June 20 at 9 p.m. (ET) on Thirteen/WNET
New York's GREAT PERFORMANCES on PBS (check local listings).