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Revising Swan Lake

Michael Pink sorts through the swirling tale

May. 21, 2013
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In most versions of Swan Lake, the white swan pas de deux represents the first meeting of Prince Siegfried and the swan queen Odette. He's obliged by virtue of his birth to marry and carry on the line, but no available princess interests him. She's queen of a legion of girls forced by a birdlike sorcerer to live as half-swans, tragically virginal until true love saves them. When Siegfried promises to be that man, the sorcerer maliciously conjures a doppelganger to drain his liberating love magic, dooming Odette. Siegfried dies with her and they are joined as one in heaven. This story is a framework for displays of virtuosity and gorgeous dancing from ballet's Romantic Era with set pieces showing the outré culture of the swan maidens, the simple pleasures of courtship among simple folk and the stylish, complicated ceremonies of aristocrats.

In Michael Pink's necessary rethinking for Milwaukee Ballet, that passage, set to one of Tchaikovsky's most heavenly melodies, represents the long-sought, long-feared reunion of Prince Siegfried and Odette, childhood sweethearts separated by the sorcerer in his plot to seize the kingdom. Odette can't bear to be in Siegfried's presence now that she's become a swan monster. Pink's freeform choreography—performed on opening night by Luz San Miguel and David Hovhannisyan and in the preview by Valerie Harmon and Ryan Martin—is far more beautiful and emotionally wrenching than the more famous versions I've seen with Margot Fonteyn and Natalia Makarova. I hope one day he'll bring such depth to the entire ballet.

I don't think all his strategies work yet. The focus on the sorcerer's coup mostly underscored the tale's illogic for me. And why would someone who can materialize a classical ballerina from pond water resort to stabbing enemies with a knife? Siegfried is the clear protagonist, but by the climax I'd lost track of him in the swirl of sorcerer and swans.

The new swan costumes are smart; in bedraggled skirts, bare legs and loose hair, the women look like they've emerged from water. Mirroring one another under David Grill's miraculous lighting, they conjured moonlit waves. San Miguel, Hovhannisyan and Martin were fine dancing fiendishly difficult choreography. Valerie Harmon, Annia Hidalgo and Alexandre Ferreira confirmed their standing as new company stars. The Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra gave a loving performance under maestro Pasquale Laurino.


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