Last week was Sara Mearns week for me (well, for many New York ballet fans, I suspect). On Tuesday night, she made her debut as the Siren in NYCB’s Prodigal Son. (I’m still awaiting photos and will post as soon as I receive them!) Sean Suozzi danced the lead role. He did very well, but she just always stands out to me whatever she is in – particularly the story ballets. She was the best, most tantalizing, sinister, seductive, all around captivating Siren I’ve ever seen. The way she whipped that cape in between her legs, wrapping it around each one, the way she’d bend her knees slowly into a second-position plie while on point, basically squatting over the son’s head in a suggestive but also sinister manner, the way she’d raise her hand behind her head with the wrist bent and the fingers splayed to indicate her triumph over the son’s will, even just the way she’d walk out onstage on pointe, tiptoeing all around him – everything, every movement was in service of the character and was an integral part of the character’s story. I often feel like I’m seeing steps with other dancers. Just steps. The pas de deux between the son and the siren contains some of Balanchine’s oddest-looking choreography- especially those lifts – ‘here, stand on my knees, wrap your legs around my neck and let me carry you around like that,’ etc. I imagine it would feel very odd and foreign doing some of that, which of course was the point. It’s supposed to look warped and off-kilter. Everyone has mastered those steps, but to me, Mearns makes it the most deliciously warped. I love her.
Then, on Friday night, the company premiered their Swan Lake (Peter Martins version), and she danced the lead. (Photo above by Paul Kolnik, from Playbill Arts.)
In sum, I loved her; I wasn’t in love with the production. I went with several friends, two of whom don’t regularly go to the ballet, and that seemed to be the consensus. Everyone was excited to see Mearns dance again, but not to see that production. She was wonderful for all the same reasons I’ve written about before – she’s like a Veronika Part to me; she does such a full job of developing character, she brings you so fully into her world, you feel all of her pain with her. But of course she’s also an excellent dancer. She has a way of arching her back so, of working her arms and hands so, of extending her leg so high in arabesque, of extending her line so beautifully and making such full shapes – it’s a cliche, but her adagio / White Swan is just breathtaking. It almost makes you want to cry, and one of my friends did!
But she excels in the Black Swan / allegro role as well – not so much because she can do athletic feats like Gillian Murphy or Natalia Osipova (there were “just” a bizillion fouettes during the pas de deux, not a bizillion fouettes divided by multiple pirouettes and wild swan-like port de bras thrown into it all) but because she can do that all perfectly fine while still making it all about the character. When she does a series of lifts with Jared Angle where she spreads her legs into a straddle split in the air above his head, it’s just so wicked! And even at the beginning of the Black Swan, when she makes her entrance and presents her hand to the queen – it’s clear she’s up to no good. But she also doesn’t overdo it. She’s conniving and sinister but with a sweet face.
But the rest of the production: Jared’s an excellent partner, that’s clear. Mearns was way off her center of gravity in much of the White Swan partnering, and he securely held her balance, freeing her up to make those gorgeous shapes, and to act it all out the way she so brilliantly does. But in his own dancing, he just, like practically all dancers these days, goes for the cliche. It all looks so fake. I don’t believe he’s in love with her, or that he’s ever longing for what he doesn’t have, and that he’s devastated when she leaves him in the end. It’s all her sorrow and longing alone. So the performance was so unbalanced. I wish so much I could see her dance this with Marcelo Gomes, who really brings Prince Siegfried’s internal conflicts to life like no one else.
The other major issue I have with this production is the costumes – the costumes and the sets. I always forget about them until I see the ballet again, and, especially when I go with friends. My friends Friday night really found it hard to look beyond those costumes. For some reason, I kept thinking of the Flinstones, my friend, Marie, called them Jackson Pollack on speed or something to that effect (I haven’t read her review yet but will after I finish this post), and the others we went with just couldn’t stop talking about the brash colors. I remember my friend in the fashion industry saying of the Romeo and Juliet costumes (Per Kirkeby designed sets and costumes for both Martins productions) that the colors needed to be muted; these brash, bright, almost neon colors made the characters look like cartoons. Same with the Swan Lake costumes. Cartoonish is NOT what you want to go for in serious ballets like this.
Also, the RACISM. This is another thing I hate to admit I often forget about until I see the ballet again with a friend, and the friend is horrified at the fact that a black man is playing the evil character. Must von Rothbart always be danced by Albert Evans or Henry Seth? Are we not living in the year 2011? I mean, this is a huge reason why young people are so turned off from the ballet. And none of the very educated critics ever seem to be calling Martins on this. What’s up with that? Seriously? I think once you go to the ballet a lot you begin to forget about these things, you become immune to them. Which is horrible. But really, asking your audience to associate black men with evil is a horrible insult to that – probably very educated – audience.
Another problem here: Faycal Karoui (the conductor) was seriously on speed. He was flying through the first half. The poor dancers couldn’t even express the story. They really had to rush falling in love. If I’d never have seen this ballet before (and there were probably some such people there due to the Natalie Portman film), I don’t know if I would have gotten much out of the White Swan pas de deux. And that’s kind of an important part of this ballet…
All other dancers did well – I particularly liked Ana Sophia Scheller and Anthony Huxley (filling in for Sean Suozzi as Benno) in the first act Pas de Trois, and, in the second act, Abi Stafford and Joaquin DeLuz in the Divertissement Pas de Quatre, and Antonio Carmena in the Neapolitan Dance – but everyone did very well (those were just the ones who stood out to me). Oh and I loved Daniel Ulbricht throughout as the Jester. With his immense skill at jumps and turns – and combo jumping turns – and his comical sensibilities, he is perfect for such a role, as he is for Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream – my favorite roles for him.
But I have to say, I was floored when none of the other dancers came out and took bows at the end of the production. Why? Whose idea was that? Only Mearns and Angle and Evans took bows. I realize the dancers are all very hard-working and probably needed to get home to get sleep for the next day’s matinee. But this severely cut Mearns’s bow and curtain calls short. It reduced the celebratory aspect of a production well done. Worse, it also really makes it look like none of the other dancers cared about Mearns, and about the production. It made it look like the company is not really a company of dancers who all work together and support each other. I’ve honestly never seen such a thing before. I’ve seen it where dancers who only dance during the first act will take their bows and curtain calls after the first act and not at the end of the whole, but the dancers who danced in the last act always come out for their bows at the end. Anyway, it really stood out to me. What did other people think?
Here is my friend Marie’s write-up.