National Ballet of Canada's current version of Swan Lake was choreographed by James Kudelka in 1999. This production is quite an unusual one: dark, violent and with a twisted plot. Only two female characters appear in the first act, the Queen and a girl called A Wench. The usual familiar waltz is replaced with knights dancing as though at a bachelor party for Prince Siegfried. The music differs very much from the Petipa/Ivanov originals in the order. It seems that the half-naked bizarre creature Von Rothbart is in existence to punish humans, and Odette is not a human maiden transformed but literally a swan. You can feel much misogynism throughout the context. Not only is A Wench gang-raped but even the Princesses in the third act are presented, as objects for auction by their ambassadors, in a humiliating manner, and forced to dance exhausting solos on their own.

Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina in Swan Lake © Aleksandar Antonijevic
Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina in Swan Lake
© Aleksandar Antonijevic

This production relies heavily on the performers to make this a coherent and plausible story. Svetlana Lunkina, the star from Bolshoi Ballet, showed the audience what a real swan is meant to be. Her Russian port de bras were lyrical and fluid, and what was remarkable was that her movements of her upper body gradually changed eloquently, showing her metamorphosis from the soulless puppet of Rothbart to a woman in love. Her accents and musicality grew as she opened up her heart to the Prince. Kudelka placed Odette's variation prior to the grand adagio, and that arrangement was quite effective in making Odette and the Prince's love seem to have accelerated to the maximum.

Lunkina's Odile was striking as well. She was seductive and powerful but without exaggeration nor gimmicks, just effective with her allure. She knows how to enchant and kill with just a gaze and herself mimicking Odette's movements. Technically she was strong, with nailing balances and although her fouettés were a little unstable, this wasn't a major flaw. And her determination and forgiveness strongly shown in her expressive arms and shoulders at the final act were truly touching.

Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina with Artists of the Ballet in Swan Lake © Aleksandar Antonijevic
Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina with Artists of the Ballet in Swan Lake
© Aleksandar Antonijevic

Toronto-born Evan McKie, guesting from Stuttgart Ballet is princely with his tall, lean stature and legs that extend forever with clarity, but he has the skills to show his dark side, not just melancholic nor bored. Refusing to obey the Queen Mother who is ordering him to get married, he is disillusioned with the world and escapes into his rather homoerotic relationship with Benno, even dancing a duo with him. But in Odette he finally finds what he is looking for. Their process of falling in love is slow but breathtaking, with him drawing out her lost emotions. Some difference could be found in their style, but each of them echoed their souls and wove them into harmony, creating a stunningly theatrical effect. McKie is a stable partner with Russian influenced classism. His arabesques had gorgeous extensions, his pointed feet, high relevés and dramatic abilities were a match made in heaven with Lunkina's pure authentic technique.

Here, the swan corps de ballet too were not the conventional ones. Sometimes each swan makes individual movements, not always unified but they are strong and beautiful, enhancing the dark and complex plot of Kudelka version effectively. In the final act, all the corps were transformed into black swans, giving a striking visual effect in contrast with Odette's white tutu. Naoya Ebe, who portrayed Benno, the soulmate of Prince Siegfried, stood out with his ballon, airy entrechat sixes, accurate landings and precise turns. The Knights in the first act showed the high standard of men of the company with their virtuosity. And the Princesses, each of them were stunners but Jillan Vanstone was a show-stopper with her bold performance as the Italian Princess.

Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina in Swan Lake © Aleksandar Antonijevic
Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina in Swan Lake
© Aleksandar Antonijevic

Kudelka's version of Swan Lake might not be a politically correct work and has quite a few flaws. But with the exquisite performance of the two marvelous leads, it showed that Swan Lake is a ballet that has boundaries that could be pushed further in terms of interpretation. It would be so fantastic if Lunkina and McKie could tighten their partnership more by performing together more often.

****1