Photo of Sara Mearns in Swan Lake, by Paul Kolnik, taken from NY Times.

Last week was the first time I’d seen Peter Martins’ version of Swan Lake. Overall, I wasn’t in love with the production, but I was in love with the dancing, particularly Sara Mearns’ interpretation of Odette, which nearly moved me to tears, which just hardly ever happens with Swan Lake. She is the Veronika Part of New York City Ballet to me and I just love her. She inhabits whatever character she’s dancing with her entire being and she takes you to that place with her; she really creates another universe and she puts you right there and won’t let you leave it! I think here what I loved was that she humanized her Odette. So many ballerinas will focus on getting the fluttering foot just right, waving their arms about with just the proper fluidity that they look like actual wings, and of course totally nailing the chaines and fouettes in the second act. They make the White Swan all about the styling and the Black Swan all about the athletics. And they forget about the story.

But with Mearns — just the way she would wrap Prince Siegfried’s arms around her body, the way she’d nearly dive into an arabesque letting him catch her before turning her, or fall nearly to the floor and arch her back, wrapping herself around his kneeling knee — everything was about the tragic story, about Odette’s loving the prince and longing for him and her need for him, and then his inability to fulfill that need. I’ve honestly never been so moved before, and when she bourreed away from him at the end (there are no suicide swan dives into the lake here), leaving him, it just left me with such a emptiness. I couldn’t stop thinking about that — about her wrapping his arms around her in the pas de deux and then her sorrowful bourrees away from him at the end — for days; I still can’t get over it. I think those images will always be in my mind when I think of this ballet.

And she just had so much stage presence. Sometimes when all the swans are onstage together, I’ll lose Odette, but not with Mearns. I think that may partly be because she has a broad face, allowing her expressions to be more noticeable to the entire house. But of course she makes those expressions that not everyone does — her face, her body, she is always fully immersed in the role.

And Jared Angle was the absolute perfect partner. You can tell he’s a very strong guy and a very solid partner who’s easy to get along with. Because she’d really really throw herself into those arabesques and he’d catch her and she was so off her center of balance — she had to be in order to show the passion and emotion, and the full, expressive line – and he’d promenade her like that, and it was so incredible because you could tell he spent the better part of the ballet supporting a lot of her body weight.

And he acted it well too, and did perfectly on his solos. Very impressive performance by him!

The other cast I saw was on opening night with Maria Kowroski in the lead and Stephen Hanna making his debut as Siegfried. Hanna was very good — he’s a strong guy too, and that night, he performed a major save! Toward the beginning Kowroski went to jump into his arms, on her way into a shoulder-high lift, and she slipped before she ever got to him. He somehow reached out and caught her anyway, and took her up into that lift beautifully. The whole audience went “ahhhhhh”! I think it threw Kowroski a bit though because she seemed nervous and a bit shaky throughout the rest of the ballet. She might also have been a bit anxious because Hanna was debuting in the role, so they obviously hadn’t performed it together yet. At intermission, someone mentioned she might have been less nervous dancing with her usual Charles Askegard. Maybe that’s true. I thought Hanna did a very good job overall.

But I’m not in love with the production. Like Martins’ Romeo + Juliet, the sets are very modern, and the costumes for Siegfried and Benno and his friends are bright, color-coded, and basic with minimal embellishments. But the sets are the worst. In the beginning, you can’t even tell they’re in a palace. In the second act, the sets are not only minimal, but what’s there is so incredibly modern, just a few brown and beige slashes on some backboards. And yet, the people are dressed in Elizabethan costumes. Either set it in modern times completely or go with the historical thing, but don’t do half and half?…

And the production just moves way too fast, in my opinion. This worked for Sleeping Beauty (the paring down of all the miming and the boring court dances, in favor of getting right to the point and to those gorgeous variations), but it didn’t work here because there’s too much story up front missing. We see all these people dancing — we don’t know they’re in a palace, so we just see them all dance, and next thing we know, Siegfried’s all bouncing around with a bow and arrow. Then he runs offstage and a moment later, on comes Odette. Then Siegfried runs back out and they do a pas de deux, and after that’s over, Odette runs one way, Siegfried runs the other, and on come the swan ensemble. And — and maybe this is conductor Karoui’s doing — but you don’t even realize Odette’s run away from Siegfried because she’s afraid of Von Rothbart, and that now Siegfried is running around madly trying to find her. Instead, it just looks like a bunch of running. There should be pauses so that you know exactly what’s happening and why– the pacing is way way too fast. I never really did see Siegfried fall for her. I first realized there was something between them when Mearns’ Odette wrapped Siegfried’s arms around her in the White Swan pdd.

The other thing is the ending, which I both like and don’t like. In this ending, there is no suicide with the two lovers¬† ending up together in eternity. Instead, since Siegfried has betrayed Odette with Odile, they can’t be together. The problem is that Martins still has Von Rothbart die — he melts into a puddle and dies once he realizes their love is undying and real. But then, if he dies, the spell should be broken and Odette can resume human form. So, the ending then loses its mysticism and becomes a human ending — Odette leaves him because he’s betrayed her, and even though he’s horribly sorry, the damage is done and can’t be undone. So, basically she just can’t forgive him. But why not? It doesn’t really have the resonance to me that it should. I think Martins should just not have Von Rothbart die. That way the lovers can’t be together because of Siegfried’s betrayal. But she still loves him, so that when she bourrees away from him, letting go of him little by little, her arms still reaching out toward him as she disappears into the wings, it just makes you want to bawl your eyes out the same way as the Giselle ending.

One other thing: Martins has some children dance in the beginning courtly scene, which I love. It’s very Balanchine to put the children in, and they were very sweet. And I could tell the people around me thought the same.

Oh and one final other thing: there’s no real dancing for Von Rothbart — it’s really just a character part. But I missed the seductive Marcelo making all the women swoon with his sexy jumps, and then tossing his Odile all about!

Anyway — sorry, I’m behind on blogging and have to blog about these things all together — but earlier in the week, I attended a daytime tribute to retiring Balanchine ballerina Darci Kistler (above photo from the front of the program). She danced the Preghiera passage from Mozartiana beautifully, with some children from School of American Ballet, then the White Swan pas de deux with Jared Angle. And then Kathryn Morgan danced the Sleeping Beauty wedding pas de deux with Tyler Angle, which was sheer perfection. They also showed some excerpts of interviews with Kistler from a 1989 documentary, Dancing For Mr. B, and there was a short panel discussion where Bob Craft from the NYCB Board interviewed her. Later, the two were joined by Peter Martins, Philip Neal (who seems very polite and well-mannered), and the hilarious Albert Evans, who you can tell is the type of guy who puts everyone at ease. He got up there and immediately started reminiscing about a blue sweater Darci’d wear to rehearsals all the time and how much he wanted it (she ended up saying he could have it!) and some rather amusing (in retrospect) goof-ups they had together, and she just really burst into genuine laughter.

Oh and at the beginning, Kathryn Morgan presented Kaitlyn Gilliland with the 2010 Janice Levin Award (Morgan was the 2009 recipient). Both gave little speeches, and Gilliland (who seems like a natural speaker) prefaced hers by pronouncing Kathryn’s recent Sleeping Beauty debut “historical,” which nearly brought tears to my eyes. Can’t think of a more apt description!

And finally, earlier last week, I saw the debut of a new ballet by corps member Adam Hendrickson. It was presented in a small downstairs auditorium at Carnegie Hall and was part of a program featuring newly discovered Prokofiev music performed by students and faculty of Yale’s School of Music. Hendrickson’s ballet was set to his Music For Athletic Exercises, and it was fast, flirty, and fun. It was performed by three dancers — Matthew Renko (who is really a stand-out dancer — I kept wondering why he wasn’t with a major ballet company, and then realized later in the week he’s a corps member at NYCB), Elysia Dawn, and Colby Damon and one pianist — Boris Berman — and Hendrickson’s original, clever choreography had elements of Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH as well as Jerome Robbins. At one point, Dawn’s feet are moving so fast and furiously, and the pianist just keeps at it and won’t let up, and she kind of stops and shoots him a look. It reminded me of Robbins’ Suite of Dances — it was cute and the crowd loved the joke. This is the second work I’ve seen of Hendrickson’s and I found both to be engaging and memorable. I think he may have a real future as a choreographer. Anyway, here is Philip’s account of the evening, and here is an article on the music.


  1. They've probably made the sets so minimalist in order to give the dancers more room and attention on the stage.

  2. Hi Tonya! I agree with you that Sara Mearns shares many wonderful traits with Veronika Part, and is one of the most interesting ballerinas at NYCB. I also really love the ending of Martins' Swan Lake – it's actually the only part of his version that I can watch at all. I think its very dramatic and it always brings a tear to my eye (unlike the ABT ending) however I think you're misreading it. I've always thought that Odette forgave Siegfried but is pulled back into the mass of swan maidens at the end because despite von Rothbart's death she's now doomed to be a swan forever. I've never really read the NYCB synopsis but I just checked it and it says that even though VR dies Odette must remain a swan because the Prince has forsworn her. So it's not her choice, it's fate (or destiny). Anyway, I find it absolutely heartbreaking.

  3. I hated the NYCB production. It was boring & story-telling choices were misguided. The choices wrt the 'spell' were confusing. The power of the spell ought to die with its originator. The von Rothbart part ended up seeming non-essential and ridiculous to me. Many sections seemed like downright 'fluff.' However I thought Bouder & Millepied danced beautifully and they saved the evening for me. And I was thoroughly impressed with Troy Schumacher as the Court Jester. Too bad I didn't get to catch Mearns' interpretation of the role, too. Hopefully next time. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes glimpse @ the Darci Kistler tribute!

  4. I had the pleasure of seeing the debut of Martins' Swan Lake back in 1999. Kyra Nichols was dancing Odette. The sets and costumes are indeed a little jarring, but not something that ruins the production in general. I did love the costumes for the swans – the blue painterly brush strokes on the white. Very pretty. What I really love about Martin's Swan Lake is his Russian variation. I think Kowroski performed it when I saw it in person (can't remember her partner). My God, that is a sexy variation. Much better than the traditional Russian Dance that most companies do.

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