Until only a couple of weeks ago, staging Russian art was uncontroversial. It was in those simpler times, before Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, that I went eagerly to West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, where Miami City Ballet was in residence to present a splendid production of Tchaikovsky’s classic Swan Lake, with newly reconstructed choreography by Alexei Ratmansky.
Ratmansky was born in St. Petersburg, grew up in Kyiv, and trained at the Bolshoi Ballet School. He performed as a principal dancer in companies around the world, including the Ukrainian National Ballet, before going on to major posts as a director and choreographer. He was the artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater from 2004 to 2008 and has been Artist in Residence with American Ballet Theatre since 2009. He was working on a new ballet for the Bolshoi set to Bach’s Art of the Fugue when the invasion began. He immediately denounced the war, which has affected his family members still living in Ukraine, and left the country.
But all this was still in the near-future as the curtain went up on a refreshed version of Swan Lake. The traditional 1895 choreography of Marius Petipa, the French-born ballet master of Russia’s Imperial Theaters, and his assistant Lev Ivanov, has dominated performances of Tchaikovsky’s ballet for the past century. What we see in modern productions, however, departs considerably from Petipa’s original vision.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Petipa’s choreography for Swan Lake and other productions was recorded using Stepanov notation in official manuals for future use. Petipa’s successor Nicholas Sergeyev, who was the ballet master at the time of the Russian revolutions of 1917, immigrated to the West and took the only copies of those manuals with him. Sergeyev staged productions of Petipa ballets at the Vic-Wells Ballet, the future Royal Ballet, where they became part of the standard repertoire. These productions, however, and subsequent performances of Petipa ballets in other companies throughout the West did not follow the manuals exactly and contain various additions and omissions.
In the last few years, the original notations preserved by Sergeyev have been examined closely to create reconstructed versions of ballets including Giselle and Sleeping Beauty, but only very recently has attention turned to Swan Lake. Along with his wife Tatiana, Ratmansky consulted archival photography, film records, and other artifacts of the ballet’s early performances, as well as the Stepanov notation, to formulate his lithe and beautiful “historically informed” production. These efforts have been compared to the “cleaning of Old Master paintings” by the critic Alastair Macaulay, who wrote the program notes.
Having premiered in 2016 in Zürich, Ratmansky’s Swan Lake came to Miami—and not New York—for its U.S. premiere. Miami City Ballet director Lourdes Lopez deserves all the credit in the world for raising the international profile of the company, leaving The New York Times to ask, “Isn’t it time for New York to have this ‘Swan Lake,’ too?” before deriding New York City Ballet’s version by Peter Martins as “tedious.” Perhaps Gotham will catch up one day.
The overall effect was nearly like seeing a different ballet, and the impression is brilliant. In the wrong hands, Swan Lake can become weighty set-piece work with a stale program of predictable dances. It is instead a colorful, dynamic work that only accentuates the sense of fantasy. The hero, Prince Siegfried, falls for Odette, who has been turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer von Rothbart, and can only save her through a fidelity that he is deceived into abandoning. Here, however, the seductive creatures do not appear as swans, but rather as enchanted young women. Siegfried’s search for a bride is not the result of an accidental encounter with nature but an active engagement with rapturous human sensuality.
Almost every scene has some measure of choreographic innovation, beginning with a spectacular, but long-forgotten, ensemble waltz for all the guests at Siegfried’s birthday party, where his mother urges him to find a bride. The most passionate scenes also have meaningful alterations. In standard productions, Siegfried approaches a flock of swans alone and becomes enamored of Odette as though struck by a bolt of lightning. In this production, he is in the company of retainers, who approach enchanted young ladies together with Siegfried, leaving Odette to maneuver her way to the prince while emanating shyness and trepidation. In the final scene, in which Siegfried must seek out Odette to account for his betrayal, they have a conciliatory pas de deux. The effect is all the more elegiac since Siegfried’s violation of his promise to remain faithful condemns Odette to a death in which he chooses to join her. Their apotheosis concludes both Ratmansky’s reconstruction and the familiar version, but the extensive revisions leading up to it here intensified the emotional resolution.
Miami City Ballet has moved to an even higher level among North American dance companies. Many already considered it the best, and after seeing this Swan Lake it is hard to argue otherwise. As Prince Siegfried, Rainer Krenstetter was fluent and powerful, yet had the sensitivity to show that he was not immune to hubris. Jennifer Lauren conveyed an alluring simplicity as Odette and also danced the part of Odile, von Rothbart’s daughter, whose similarity to Odette tricks Siegfried into infidelity. In this version, Odile is an image of purity whose wiles take on Odette’s most attractive features. Luiz Silva’s von Rothbart was menacing and brutal enough to frighten children in the audience.
Jérôme Kaplan’s darkly traditional sets and costumes acknowledge the familiar version but suit Ratmansky’s revisions perfectly. The Opus One Orchestra, however, was a weak link. Under Beatrice Jona Affron’s baton, it approached Tchaikovsky’s score with a sometimes disjointed oom-pah-pah sound. Too often, the sharper tempos in the score unfolded without much energy or precision, which underserved the truly exceptional movement on stage.