Out of the forest and into the studio

Pennsylvania Ballet's "Swan Lake' (1st review)

6 minute read
Hench (left), Fadeley: Beautifully precise. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
Hench (left), Fadeley: Beautifully precise. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
The crowd outside the Academy of Music was so huge that at first it was hard to believe this was the ballet audience. It was Pennsylvania Ballet's opening night performance of its own internationally acclaimed version of Swan Lake, but it looked much more like a baseball crowd waiting for the gates to open at Citizens Bank Park.

The company's artistic director, Roy Kaiser, had given choreographer Christopher Wheeldon a free hand, and Wheeldon had created a Swan Lake that followed the 19th-Century classic's story of the lovely ladies— Odette and Odile, the White Swan (the good girl) and the Black Swan (the conniving girl)— imprisoned in the shape of swans by the magician Von Rothbart.

Officially, Wheeldon's creation was called Swan Lake after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It's actually quite a bit after. The great Petipa Ivanov version, which is still danced by major ballet companies worldwide, sets most of the action in a suitably mysterious forest with an occasional glimpse of Prince Siegfried's castle. The heroine is Queen of the Swans, a beautiful bird except for a brief time between midnight and dawn when the sorcerer Von Rothbart allows her to become a woman.

Degas in the studio

Wheeldon moved the story out of the forest and into a 19th-Century Parisian dance studio during the era when Degas was drawing and painting young ballet students. Wheeldon's version is set primarily in a dance studio; only a large mirror/window at stage rear allows periodic glimmers of a dark forest, of swans flapping overhead and of swans drifting just outside the studio. We see young dancers rehearsing Swan Lake under the direction of Von Rothbart, the original wicked sorcerer here transformed by Wheeldon into a demanding dance master, performed with great verve by Meredith Rainey.

Also in the studio is Prince Siegfried's former tutor, a role performed by the now retired but still great Jeff Gribler, who manages to convey more information about a character just walking across the stage than most other dancers.

A mysterious man in a top hat hangs around as well. Those familiar with Degas paintings and drawings of ballet dancers already know that these works of art usually include a top-hatted gentleman in background, looking over the girls. Just in case some audience members missed the connection, or failed to read the program, a reproduction of a famous Degas ballet painting is carried on stage later.

Up from the corps

Zachary Hench performed the role of prince as he had danced it when the production opened six years ago. His Swan Queen was the lovely Lauren Fadeley, a dancer whose picture could be found in the program among the corps dancers. Fadeley was lovely, yielding and beautifully precise as she executed this layered role of the two beautiful swans. If Fadeley isn't immediately promoted to either soloist or principal dancer following this performance, she will be soon.

Kaiser used this theatrical run to give some of his talented supporting dancers the opportunity to demonstrate that they were ready for "break-out" performances. The second cast has soloists (but not principals) Brooke Moore and Francis Veyette in the leads.

Big swans, baby swans

The second act blends into the first with some of Swan Lake's most famous moments danced in the studio, with only the huge mirror/window reflecting trees, clouds and swan images flying overhead at stage rear to remind viewers of the original setting. Here Caralin Curcio and Rachel Maher performed the famous big swan duet.

The swan corps danced, and the four cygnets— the baby swans, with their precision footwork and crisscrossed arms— got a lovely rendering from Laura Bowman, Phoebe Gavula, Abigail Mentzer and Ryoko Sadoshima. Meanwhile, the music surged and Siegfried, seeing the swans dancing and then flying off, rushed out to follow them.

Clap hands, stamp feet

Act III we find ourselves in the castle, where a series of national dances and courtly movements take place. Our hero gazes out the window for the half-human, half-imaginary swan who has captured his human heart. Meanwhile, the party gets underway.

A pas de quatre for Martha Chamberlain, Evelyn Kocak, Ian Hussey and Jermel Johnson is beautifully performed, followed by Gabriella Yudenich (alternating with Amy Aldrige) in a Russian dance. Lillian di Piazza, Edward Barnes and Jonathan Stiles stomp out a Spanish dance that involves a great deal of clapping hands, stamping feet and gaudy red wigs. Rachel Maher and James Ihde execute Hungarian Czardas, only to be upstaged by a confident and assured can-can from Caralin Curcio, Adrianna de Svastich, Amy Holihan, Riolama Lorenzo and Alyson Pray.

The true showstopper, however, occurs when Amy Aldridge glamorously slithers into the room to find a row of gentlemen giving her the eye. She passes from man to man, removing a piece of her costume each time, until finally she dances freely in a black top and black shorts.

Bid from Edinburgh

Kaiser, the Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director, says he wanted a Swan Lake that was an original production. Kaiser couldn't have known how well this poetic original interpretation of a long established classic would suit his company and his audience. Not only was the new staging a hit locally, the Edinburgh Festival invited Pennsylvania Ballet to bring its new Swan Lake to the 2005 festival as the main stage event, giving the troupe international standing.

So why was the Academy packed? Why on this cold night were hundreds huddled on Broad Street waiting for the Academy's doors to open?

A few thoughts: the film Black Swan— with 15 Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in the cast— had been in the news for months. Many audience members were probably curious to see how the real thing looked compared to the high drama and gore of Darren Aronofsky's cinematic version. Others, like me, had seen and loved Wheeldon's ballet when it debuted in 2004.

And let's give it to the Pennsylvania's dancers, too: They've developed and retained one of Philadelphia's largest and most loyal audiences. If Cliff Lee had been a dancer instead of a pitcher, he'd have cited the ballet audience as one of his major reasons for returning to Philadelphia.♦

To read another review by Jim Rutter, click here.

What, When, Where

Pennsylvania Ballet: Swan Lake. Music by Pyotr Tchaikovsky; choreography by Christopher Wheeldon. Through March 12, 2011 at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Sts. 215-551-7000 or

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