It’s been four years since Isabella Boylston debuted in the twin roles of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and a lot has happened since then. Three of American Ballet Theatre’s top principal women retired which opened up lots of roles for the company’s younger women. Boylston consequently was promoted to principal and had to learn a lot of new choreography. The experience she has gained showed in this performance. In 2012 Boylston was a rising soloist who showed a lot of promise. She’d had some feature roles but Swan Lake was her major test. Paired with Daniil Simkin, her first show was a fine performance delivered under intense pressure. It’s a make or break role for a young ballerina and it’s the one that every little girl who ever put on a tutu dreams of. Four years later she is beginning to deliver on that promise with a beautiful and nuanced performance that had the whole audience in her pocket.

Isabella Boylston © Gene Schiavone
Isabella Boylston
© Gene Schiavone

Odette, the White Swan, is by far the harder of the dual roles. Odette dances through a lot of slow adagio which requires much more control than the flashier Black Swan. Boylston’s Odette has grown and matured greatly. There is so much more to her as a dancer and the last four years of experience reveal glimpses of her developping maturity as an artist. This swan had more of the wild bird in her and less of the lyric ballerina. There was an edge of ferocity to her fear when she met Prince Siegfried, fending him off with wild flutters. Her hands looked like wing tips, catching air as they moved. Her neck was more involved than it was previously, arching and twisting in a manner that was nearly feral. She still has that touching vulnerability that makes her so emotionally appealing but there is now also a soaring spirit to her dancing that can be thrilling.

Odile always gets the applause, no matter that it’s not as difficult a role as Odette. It’s those dratted thirty-two fouettés that she does in the coda of the pas de deux. People fall for meaningless tricks like that when it’s the slow descent from pointe, rolling slowly through the foot, then the ankle and then bending the knee that is truly difficult. Boylston’s Black Swan was not as strong in her debut four years ago. She was lacking the necessary quality of glittering malice that makes Odile resonate but she definitely has it now. Her movement was appropriately edgy, full of attack and latent power. How Siegfried never caught on that she was up to no good is anyone’s guess. And there were no problem with those fouettés.

Playing Prince Siegfried, Alexandre Hammoudi was a sympathetic performer and an outstanding partner. Unfortunately he was not a prince. He was missing that essential quality of stillness and certainty. When he was supposed to be standing still his hands frequently became restless and he twitched his feet numerous times. These were small movements but they betrayed an inner monologue that showed he was not fully immersed in the role. To really be princely there can be no extraneous movements. Compounding his difficulties, Hammoudi is not a natural turner and that’s a serious problem. It’s okay not to make it to the end of a turn but you can’t do it by hopping until you finish it. 

James Whiteside as van Rothbart © Gene Schiavone
James Whiteside as van Rothbart
© Gene Schiavone
There’s not a great deal to add with respect to the rest of the show. Everyone did their parts competently. Blaine Hoven was very good as Benno. Joseph Gorak, as usual, shone in the Neapolitan dance with his trademark elegance and should make principal in the next two years. James Whiteside was just on the safe side of camp as the dancing von Rothbart while Thomas Forster was an epic villain as the devil horns von Rothbart. Ormsby Wilkins led the orchestra with his typical refinement.

Boylston was simply great. She moved through this commanding performance with complete assurance and regal grace. She has grown greatly in this defining role and will only get better. Susan Jaffe, one of ABT’s greatest ever Swans and the one who taught the role to Boylston, once said that she didn’t feel like she really owned the part until she’d been dancing it for ten years. I’ll keep coming back to see how this Swan develops. As for the rest of the production, it looks faded and dated and it’s time to retire it.