The dual-role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake is well-known — probably more now than ever, thanks to the Black Swan phenomenon. Odette is tragic and pure; Odile is darker, seductive, evil with a capital “E.”
Sara Mearns, who danced the parts in New York City Ballet’s production of Swan Lake on Sunday, has passed over this truism for a far more interesting interpretation. I have seen many dancers who pause (as if awaiting a photo op) in the attitude positions that pepper the beginning of the white swan pas de deux. Mearns dances through them, so that they seem not static poses, but failed attempts to take flight. Her Odette is trapped but not suffocated: she breathes with the music, whether trembling with distrust, or soaring through the air in a series of powerful sissonnes.
Mearns’ black swan is equally fascinating. This Odile is not particularly sultry or scheming: she certainly doesn’t throw around malicious smirks or flirtatious glances. Her demeanor, rather, is chilly, distant, glittering — and above all, empty. Those same sissonnes that once propelled Odette, flying, across the stage are now rigid; when she sinks to the floor and crosses her wrists over her ankle, there is no fluttering, nervous energy in her hands. Her arabesques, held a moment too long, are more poses than movement.
It makes sense, dramatically. Prince Siegfried (Jared Angle) has no reason to doubt that this doppelganger is not the woman he loves. The tragedy, perhaps, is not that he falls victim to Odile’s wiles, but that he fails to recognize that this is another woman entirely. Do these hollowed-out gestures not seem soulless to him?
Peter Martins’ production is not without its flaws. The lakeside scene in Act II is based on Balanchine’s one-act Swan Lake (in turn based on choreography by Lev Ivanov), and is mostly very good. (One quibble I have is the entrance of the swans. In the versions of the ballet to which I am most accustomed, the swans enter with a long series of sautés and emboîtés, which convey the irrevocable, unending nature of the curse. This version breaks up the sequence with softer piqué arabesques.) Still, the choreography is visually appealing, with Balanchine’s signature complexly shifting patterns.
The first act, however, has been stripped of dimension and shading—both literally and figuratively. As in his Romeo + Juliet, Martins’ Swan Lake seems to aspire to an aesthetic of clean simplicity: the set in this first scene is restricted to a painterly backdrop, the number of dancers limited, the costumes monochromatic. (Siegfried is dressed in royal blue, Benno in red, the jester in orange, the corps de ballet in green). A minimalist aesthetic is not necessarily a coherent one, though, and as in Romeo + Juliet, the effect is not one of understated elegance but a flat dissonance: the dancers might as well be wearing motley. And while Jared Angle is superb as Siegfried, he is not given quite enough material with which to flesh out his character. This is a cheap-looking and two-dimensional court. The design of the third act is somewhat better, but Martins’ choreography here (as in the first act) seems mostly filler. The best piece is probably the pas de quatre, which includes some sleek and stylish variations; the worst is certainly the “dark” Russian pas de deux, which is simply tacky. I spent most of it wondering what, exactly, Martins had heard in the music.
I must say, though, that I do like the final act of this Swan Lake, though the choreography does deteriorate a bit as the act continues. In the first corps de ballet piece, there is a poignant moment in which one line of dancers merges with another, before the second emerges and continues on to the next line. In the brief second when the lines combine, and one dancer is indistinguishable from the next, I couldn’t help but think, again, of the double-role of Odette and Odile. Fittingly, when Siegfried later enters, looking frantically for the swan queen, he fails to recognize her among her friends despite passing by her twice.
As with any classic ballet, there are myriad endings from which he could have picked: many end with Odette and Siegfried throwing themselves off of a cliff, thereby ending the spell cast on the swan maidens. Martins’ ballet does not conclude with the death of its protagonists, and yet is darker: the spell remains unbroken, Odette and the prince separated. While many Swan Lakes show Odette and Siegfried rising into golden light, the stage here grows gray, the light unforgiving, as Odette bourrées backward to her inexorable fate.