Kevin McKenzie's remarkably prosaic production of Swan Lake made its annual appearance at American Ballet Theatre's spring season. Only a truly remarkable Odette/Odile can get me to sit through this production. Where do I start? The prologue elicits laughs when Rothbart captures Odette (in human form) and comes back onstage with a large stuffed swan. The role of Rothbart is split into two roles for two different dancers – a green swamp creature for the lakeside scenes and Purple Rothbart for the ballroom scene. Why? The final act is abbreviated to about ten minutes which destroys the ballet's structure of contrasting the lakeside scenes with Prince Siegfried's court life. And finally the thing is just so ugly; the "lake" curtain looks like strips of green slime.

James Whiteside and Christine Shevchenko in <i>Swan Lake</i> © Gene Schiavone
James Whiteside and Christine Shevchenko in Swan Lake
© Gene Schiavone

But a remarkable enough dancer can get me to sit through this Swan Lake. Tonight Christine Shevchenko made this production almost bearable. Shevchenko had a great success as Odette/Odile. She is working with several inborn advantages; she has long arms, a pliant back, hyperextended legs with extremely arched insteps. In other words, you look at her, and think Swan Lake.

Shevchenko combines those physical attributes with total technical security. This was more impressive when she was Odile where her long-held balances, showy flexibility and confidence in her body language made one understand why Siegfried would be attracted to this new shiny thing. In the coda, she alternated single fouettés with doubles with fouettés a la seconde. Shevchenko's naturally cool demeanor was also a bonus – she didn't resort to over the top vamping. This was a woman who knew she was desirable.

Her Odette was beautifully danced. She has long, rippling "swan" arms, and she obviously paid attention to little details in the choreography. One is at the end of the White Swan Adagio, where ballerinas are supposed to beat their foot against their calves. When done right it looks like the flutter of a heart. I've seen many ballerinas erase that detail. Shevchenko articulated each frappé. The only thing missing with Shevchenko's Odette right now is that she is not much of a dance actress. Her face tends to be an expressionless mask. Her Odette didn't make the arc from fear to love and trust in the lakeside scene, but it was still a very impressive performance.

James Whiteside as Prince Siegfried also had success. He is not a bravura dancer but he is an excellent partner who almost disappeared in the White Swan Adagio. In his few solo moments he showed soft high jumps and soft landings. However, the chemistry between him and Shevcheno was lacking.

Calvin Royal III in <i>Swan Lake</i> © Gene Schiavone
Calvin Royal III in Swan Lake
© Gene Schiavone

The peasant pas de trois was danced by Joseph Gorak, Skylar Brandt, and Cassandra Trenary. Brandt and Trenary were wonderful – so light and effortless executing all that fast par terre footwork. But Gorak was a shock. Once one of the company’s most elegant dancers, tonight he had no elevation, extension nor expression. Calvin Royal III had enough oily charm to make the Purple Rothbart solo fun. The ABT corps were okay but obviously from a hodgepodge of schools, so arms, wrists, neck and head placements varied from woman to woman in the swan corps.

The production definitely needs a makeover – the curtain scrims had visible holes in them, the swan costumes looked dark beige rather than white, and Green Swamp Rothbart’s costume looks to be falling apart too.

But at the end of the evening the audience went wild. Christine Shevchenko is the real deal – the best Odette/Odile I’ve seen at ABT since Nina Ananiashvili. I have seen Shevchenko dance many times and she’s always been a very capable dancer, but tonight she danced like a true ballerina.

****1