Saturday, February 12, 2011


Sara Mearns, Swan Queen

"So, you know how Sara Mearns is kind of wild on stage?"


"That's why they have to give her a dependable partner."

What does it mean to be wild on stage? There is a moment in the whimsical ballet Namouna, where Mearns does a series of jumps, while turning backward in the air, and landing against some men who must catch her. She can't see them. She has to trust that they are there and won't drop her. They don't know how hard she will jump. The whole thing is terrifying. Some dancers would hold back and play it safe, hitting the beat, or jumping high enough to look impressive, but not angling their bodies to ever be at any risk. Think of iceskaters at the Olympics, pausing before the big jump, then landing with a look of relief. Sara doesn't do this. She throws herself. She seems to enjoy it. You feel frightened for her and thrilled. You end up enjoying it too.

This was the energy Mearns brought to Swan Lake last night at the New York City Ballet pretty much from the moment go. Her white swan, Odette, leapt onto the stage and immediately began to flutter with fear and exhaustion. Mearns did something I've never seen anyone do before--she radiated the panicked nervousness of a bird frantically trying to get out of a cage, with a sort of queenly, eon-long suffering beauty. Hers was a Run-Lola-Run-Jason-Bourne swan, running on adrenaline, but still hopeful that one day her predicament will end.

As a contrast, take a look at Uliana Lopatkina of the Kirov.

Here is a swan who looks like she's emerging from the water. She's had a nice bath and is stretching out her wings to dry. She is queenly and regal and turns away from the prince because, well, maybe he isn't good enough for her. She's silky, elegant, and gorgeous. She meets the prince and thinks: hmm. Maybe you can help me!

For contrast, here is another version, this time from the Paris Opera Ballet. You'll notice a difference--the leg extensions are not quite as high. For me, this interpretation, performed by Agnès Letestu, is high on actorly drama. Odette looks like a bird. She is in some ways a more physical creature than the swan above, all darting eyes and twitching head.

And here's one more, from a slightly different moment in the ballet. Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn are Siegfried the prince, and Odette the swan, respectively. Look how passionate and how in love the two seem. It is going to break your heart later when he (oops) chooses another woman over her.

I don't think any interpretation is the most correct (and if you want to see more, knock yourself out. Type in "Odette's entrance" and see what you get). The point is just that Sara's, to me, was completely unique. In she flew, an exhausted, gorgeous, swan queen who we all very much wished to help. She was riveting; her performance gripping. If I put on my thinking cap, I'd say that here is an example of a performer taking something that has been done hundreds of times, and finding a way to make it new. As a fan, I would just say I sat there transfixed, and thrilled, with my hand over my mouth.

Dancers usually say that it is the black swan who is more difficult to capture. If you have seen Black Swan, the movie, then you know all about the received opinion concerning this role. In a recent article in the New York Times, NYCB dancer Sterling Hyltin (whom I also love), said:

“By nature white swan is easier for me. I’m more petite. We’ve got some very tall women in our company who do ‘Swan Lake,’ and for me it’s intimidating to feel as womanly as they are in a role, but I have to realize I’m a woman just like them.”

The black swan is the sexy, show-stopping role. She is the one who does 32 fouettes (a kind of demanding turn--ballet fans often count to see if a ballerina does them well). For example, here is Gillian Murphy:

No wonder the prince forgets about the white swan, right? Initially, (as in, a few years ago), Mearns didn't even do the full fouette regimen, though she certainly did last night when I saw her. And while she was also not doing multiple turns, like Murphy did above, the effect was still thrilling. Her Odile was in command, sexy, not cruel, but certainly intent on overpowering the prince.

So, no wonder the prince chooses Odile by accident and breaks Odette's heart, right? Why would anyone choose the fluttering, silky, sad white swan over the sexy one? Except, the way that Mearns played the white swan, as I described above, anchored the character so fully as the most important part of the story, that you could only feel even more devastated by the prince's betrayal. On a story level, the fact that Mearns infused Odette with so much adrenaline driven energy--you feel her fear--means that the last act does not fall flat. You do not think: "Oh, here we are with that white swan again." It's a brilliant way to play the duality and one I've not seen before. It makes sure that you, the audience member, are completely invested in the heart of the story, and that you are not treated merely to an evening of acrobatics.

In the hallway, during intermission, I ran into a veteran dance critic who said to me, dreamily: "It used to be this way every night."

But a ballet shouldn't just be about its star. True, I paid for my ticket because of Mearns. But one hopes that the rest of the ballet will also be good. And there was some good dancing. Daniel Ulbricht seems made for the role of the jester. It's one of the jumping-man roles, which also calls for the ability to appear good natured and playful. Ulbricht is all of these things, and he was certainly airborne. Joaquin de Luz was even more extraordinary, with some of the most effortless double tours I've ever seen. I enjoyed the trio of Abi Stafford, Megan Fairchild and Tiler Peck--I love Peck in particular. Anna Sofia Scheller, whom I've not been nice to in the past, really impressed me last night, what with her strong, playful dancing. She is someone who just seems to radiate *health* and does well when her characters are healthy. This was the second time I watched Eria Pereira. The first was in Chaconne where I thought she must be a student, she looked so small and hesitant on stage. I'm confused as to how she managed to become a soloist, while someone with actual stage presence, like Lauren King, is back in the corps.

Then there was Jared Angle, as Siegfried the prince. Angle is a solid partner, but his acting and emotion lack variety and depth. Look, for example, at this clip from the Royal Ballet. It's from the end of Swan Lake, when Siegfried realizes what a mess he has made of things, and so dashes frantically around the lake looking for the swan/woman he has betrayed. Watch for the urgency of his movements. (This is Nureyev, we are talking about).

(Musically, by the way, this sounds like just the kind of thing John Williams would have listened to and used for some of his movie music. Listen again).

This kind of passion was missing from Angle. And this makes me wonder what Mearns would be capable of were she to dance with an even better partner. I am thinking, for example of how much passion the often reserved David Hallberg (whom I adore) gave his Romeo when he danced with Osipova in Romeo and Juliet last spring. Even Gia Kourlas wrote:

As young ballet stars they show a longing to push past the point of comfort in their roles, especially those as fraught with history and emotion as Romeo and Juliet. You can sense their impatience, their devotion and, finally, their desire not to settle for a performance on the surface.

This is not to say that David Hallberg isn't amazing at everything he does. It's just that partnered with Osipova, he seemed to push himself even more. And looking at Mearns, who is clearly an artist of immense talent, intuition and depth, I couldn't help but want even more for her than she already has. What magic, for example, might we see if she danced with Marcelo Gomes? The set around them would melt.

Of course, if the set in question is one designed by Per Kirkeby, that would not be such a bad thing. I have been googling trying to find pictures of the sets and costumes to show you, but none seem to exist. There is probably a reason for this. They are horrendous. I have an open mind when it comes to modern productions--I loved the much booed Tosca at the Met, for example. But what on earth possessed anyone to think that a high octane splattered primary color based set that looked like Jackson Pollock on acid would be in any way shape or form, good? The mottled courtiers who opened act two looked like marbled fudge chess pieces from a discarded production of Alice in Wonderland. The jester, as someone said to me, looked like a gnome in neon fatigues. At some point, this kind of color scheme starts to look willfully in bad taste. It's not funny. It's cynical.

My friend Allison put it best when she said: "Tim Gunn would never let them get away with this!"

Or, as another friend, who is not a regular ballet goer said to me: "This is distracting." Well, yes. It was also distracting when the orchestra decided to race through the first act, as though on speed. Why so afraid of something classic? If there is a heart to a story, it will show. Why not embrace that?

The ending of City Ballet's production has also been considered "controversial." Last year, after attending Darci Kistler's farewell performance, I wrote that it was "strange." Looking at it again, though, I've decided it is wonderful. In most versions, Odette and Siegfried either jump off a cliff and die (ABT), or vanquish the evil von Rothbart and live (Bolshoi). Here's the incomparable Plisetkaya, alive at the end of act 4, and protecting all the little swans who have clustered around her.

City Ballet does something different. The tormented, desperate Odette manages to vanquish von Rothbart, but still she is engulfed by the sisterhood of black *and* white swans, only to disappear out of sight. It's a feminist ending to a ballet that otherwise relies heavily on the power of a prince for salvation. At the end, Mearns, as the swan, is presumably healed from the affliction of the aviary curse. But, regretfully, she must retreat to now recover, one assumes, from her century long ordeal and perhaps even a broken heart.

What a great analysis/review. Yes, I'm in such agreement on all counts, particularly about the way the ending casts the story in a feminist perspective, that's exactly how it struck me. Told this way, the curse seems self-imposed--its effectiveness deriving from Odette's own belief that she's incomplete--and her escape from it requires her to find her wholeness and integrity, rather than some bland prince...
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I love this review so much! I especially love all the comparison clips you dug up from youtube. I'm in the library now without earphones, so I'll have to wait until I go home to take a look (though I've probably seen at least a few of those clips already), but I think you do an amazing analysis. You've also made me want to heavily consider going to City Ballet to see Mearns, and also now I'm very curious about the different ending (not so much the crazy sounding set and costume design though -- I like my pretty sparkly sets).

How come I haven't read your blog before?! I just read your Black Swan post too... I'm too scared to watch the movie, and after reading your review, less inclined to see it. I cheated and looked up the synopsis just so I could know what it was about.

I'm cutting and pasting this to send to my mother who lives in China (and lives for summers when she comes back for ABT) -- they don't get blogger access out there, but she loves reading anything about dance. Maybe this will convince her to catch a NYCB performance with me one day as well... :)
Thank you both so much for reading and commenting! You've no idea how nice it is to share these thoughts with people--I love ballet, and while I'm happy to go to a performance alone, it is always better to be able to discuss it with friends!

karissa--I'm relatively new to blogging about dance. I used to do it on and off, but now I am really working at it. I think dance is difficult to write about well. I decided I wanted to try to challenge myself to do so.

I'm moved that your mother comes to NYC for the ballet. This spring season will be such a big deal at ABT. There will be so much going on! And amidst all the "stars" who will be dancing, I want to encourage you both to go see the young Korean dancer, Hee Seo, who will be debuting in Giselle. She did such a beautiful Juliet last year and the year before; I can't wait to see what she does with Giselle. And, you know, thank God we finally have an Asian star in the US aside from Yuan Yuan Tan in SF . . .
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