Saturday, April 20, 2019

'Swan Lake' shows Indianapolis Ballet fit for masterpieces

The impulsiveness of youth and the proneness of everyone to deception in matters of the heart make "Swan Lake" a reliably gripping ballet. And that's apart from the often glorious music and the demands of acting and technique, particularly in the double role of Odette/Odile.
Shea Johnson and Kristin Toner danced the central roles of "Swan Lake" Friday night.

These qualities were fully in evidence Friday night in the second of three performances Indianapolis Ballet is presenting of the work at Newfields' Toby theater.

In the cast I saw, there was a striking representation of the Queen of the Swans by Kristin Toner. She displayed the melting lyricism of the object of Prince Siegfried's affection throughout the original's second act (in this production joined to the first act). There was the touch of victimization, as Odette leads a flock of the majestic birds that are actually maidens under the spell of the sorcerer Rothbart. But there was also stature of the sort that leaders, even those subject to powers greater than their own, have to show forth. Odette's reciprocal love for the prince, her belief in his promise to choose her above all rivals, came through in Toner's performance. That Odette's trust will be betrayed is central to the pathos of "Swan Lake."

In order for such a personality to emerge in context, the miming aspect of all the named roles must be intact. This was quite clear under Victoria Lyras' direction. Every gesture told, crucially in the case of Odette and her lover, Siegfried, danced on Friday by Shea Johnson. It was evident as well in roles with less dancing, chiefly Michelle Merrell as the Queen, Siegfried's control freak of a mother, and Paul Vitali as her consort.

The latter role is ominously combined with that of Baron von Rothbart, costumed in a billowing cape shimmering with nocturnal colors and resembling a bird of prey. This production's prologue briefly summarizes the sorcerer's spellbinding control of Odette, which drives the story, even if the motivation remains unclear. It's just the sort of thing sorcerers do, I guess. Every move Vitali made conveyed the message that there is a canker at court as well as out at the wooded lake.

Johnson had the right royal bearing, while also communicating Siegfried's determination to be his own man. His rejection of three princesses vying to be his bride was firm and willful; their wooing efforts were brought off well by Indiana Coté, Jessica Miller, and Camila Ferrera. My impression of this Siegfried was that he was a little more earthbound than he needed to be, though he executed the virtuoso requirements of the role pretty well. 

I was more impressed by the youthful spring in Chris Lingner's every step as Benno, Siegfried's best friend. (Lingner will portray the Prince in today's matinee.) The hunting party he heads was lent just enough realism to make it clear that Siegfried has far different goals from his companions.

Indianapolis Ballet's 'Swan Lake': Mazurka Dance finale of the Palace act's character dances.
The troupe of swans accompanying Odette was thoroughly enchanting. Coordinated movement also had flair and the kind of mystery that makes an audience willing to suspend disbelief: Yes, we are convinced, young women under a spell can also be beautiful birds. Predictably delightful was the perky dance of young swans (cygnets); Rowan Allegra, Abigail-Rose Crowell, Camila Ferrera, and Katherine Sawicki looked well-nigh perfect in this ballet's rare touch of humor, hopping in unison with hands joined.

The costumes were stunning in the Palace act. Each character dance, with its specific ethnic flavor, joined visual enchantment to that of Tchaikovsky's music. The Neapolitan Dance, as danced by Lingner and Yoshiko Kamikusa, had extra brilliance and spirit. It helped set up this section's expansive ensemble finale, the Mazurka Dance.

But of course the tipping point of the action in this act is the appearance of the sorcerer's nuptial candidate Odile, danced as is customary by the ballerina who has already won our hearts as Odette. It's hard for this impersonation to come up to the level of the white swan as an acting feat. The characterization must be more one-dimensional even as the technical demands are greater. While hinting to Siegfried that she is his beloved, as her arms tantalizingly move like wings, Odile's movements are angular and stark in a show-offy way.  

This is capped by the repeated bent-leg whipping motion that propels a series of stunning turns (fouettés), which achieved the proper level of astonishment Friday night. If something demonic as well as technically advanced comes through flawlessly, this solo variation for Odile is ballet's equivalent of the Queen of the Night aria in Mozart's "Magic Flute." That's what Toner provided. Siegfried is of course fooled by the display and, despite misgivings prompted by the apparition of Odette, links his fate to Rothbart's daughter.

Lyras has loaded the final act with dramatic tension, as Rothbart appears to have won, solidifying his command over the captive swan-women. Her choice of a happy ending has plenty of precedent, and no doubt makes "Swan Lake" less disturbing to audiences with many children in attendance. At the other extreme, there's something spiritually deflating about witnessing the magnificent Rudolf Nureyev as the helpless Siegfried flailing about, drowning, at the end of the film Nureyev directed decades ago. 

Gloomy endings are, to be sure, common in fairy tales. But here, the evil spell is broken. The liberation of Indianapolis Ballet's exemplary swan corps as Siegfried brings Odette forward in his arms and she revives before our eyes is just the reward everyone wants to receive at the end of this superb romantic ballet.

[Photos by Moonbug Photography]

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