The Bolshoi Ballet’s production of Swan Lake, performed here in New York as part of Lincoln Center Festival re-shapes the story as happening in a dark world of Prince Siegfried’s imagination. You might be concerned that making poor Odette nothing but a figment of her prince’s imagination would marginalize her character but this production is still very much about the Swan Queen. It was a triumph for Svetlana Zakharova, one of the best dancers I’ve ever seen in the dual role of Odette - Odile. Naysayers might criticize Zakhkarova for a supposedly frosty manner. Yet, it isn’t so. She does not resort to exaggerated facial expressions, all is conveyed through her body instead. Her bourrés express more of Odette's fear than any facial expression could approximate. She is one of the very best dancers in the world right now and she is at the peak of her career.

Svetlana Zakharova as Odette © Stephanie Berger
Svetlana Zakharova as Odette
© Stephanie Berger

The Bolshoi Orchestra seconds her in making the show as success. It is, hands down, the best ballet orchestra performance I’ve ever heard. The music was well articulated and full of the necessary power from the brass when it reached triple fortissimo. I believe this is the way Tchaikovsky’s score was meant to be played in the theater.

The Bolshoi's is, in some ways, a substantially revised take on Swan Lake, in that it places Prince Siegfried at the forefront. Much more is demanded of him dramatically than in the more traditional versions. David Hallberg, in this enhanced role of Siegfried, is a frustrating dancer. But any critique of his wooden acting has to begin with acknowledging the beauty of his dancing... He doesn’t generate much excitement. and neither does he project much emotion, even when the music is dramatically crashing around him. His grand jetés, amongst the most perfect in ballet today, elicit sighs rather than inspiring awe. He’s never at risk of emotion causing him to reach too far. It would be nice to see him lose control every once in a while and take some risks.

David Hallberg, as Siegfried © Stephanie Berger
David Hallberg, as Siegfried
© Stephanie Berger

Among the other luminaries of the evening, Vladislav Lantratov excelled as the Evil Genius, shadowing Prince Siegfried around the stage and exuding palpable menace. Lantratov's dramatic performance is particularly strong, and he would probably make an excellent Siegfried. Igor Tsvirko, as the Fool, leaped spectacularly accross the stage and added his own touch of sardonic, self-deprecating humor. Among the Princesses of Varying Ethnicity – which the program refers to as the Brides – the best by far was Anna Tikhomirova in the Spanish dance. She radiated fun and passion in equal measure.

The first thing I wondered about when I heard that the Bolshoi Ballet was playing in the much smaller confines of the David H. Koch Theater was whether the dancers would find themselves cramped for space. That proved to be the case when the swans were running in a large circle around the stage. They did run out of room and bumped into the wings repeatedly. 

The great thing about classics is that they can – and will – outlive any attempts to re-imagine them. They are classics because they speak of the enduring truths that transcend the fickle vagaries of transient fashion. There are interesting points, but also failures, in this version. Much of the pantomime has been cut – and as far as I’m concerned – to good riddance. Less mime – which I personally find excruciating because it is seldomly done perfectly – means more dancing. The running time is trimmed down to just a little over two hours. The sets for this production are ugly, aggressively so, and the dim lighting occasionally fails to enlighten the dancers. 

The Evil Genius – also know in other productions as Von Rothbart – may also be, according to programe notes, the embodiment of Fate. In any event, he lures Prince Siegfried into a dream world to show him a vision of ideal love.

Hallberg and Zakharova , Swan Lake, Act 3 © Stephanie Berger
Hallberg and Zakharova , Swan Lake, Act 3
© Stephanie Berger
In the final act, the Evil Genius takes Odette away. It’s not clear what precisely has happened to her but it seems she was spirited away and poor Siegfried is left to ponder his own fate, alone. The audience’s reaction was a letdown. This ending is, to me, inherently dissatisfying, in that it fails to meet the myth's ultimate ending. If the Evil Genius does in fact represent Fate, then it becomes even more imperative that there should be a death. Without it there can be no real catharsis and that is essential to tragedy. At the heart of this myth lies Siegfried’s sacred oath of fidelity, which will, once demonstrated, break the curse that holds Odette captive. His betrayal, in being misled into believing Odile is Odette, leaves death as the only way out of this inexorable fate. To turn it into nothing more than a daydream fails to honour that, and leaves the audience without the catharsis essential, in my opinion, to the artistic experience of Swan Lake. The emotional and symbolic logic of this could take up several volumes and this version of Swan Lake may well be in mothballs by the time any of those are written. On the other hand, you could just enjoy the show and focus on Svetlana Zakharova's sublime dancing. She delivered everything that was wanted. Brava!

***11