Swan Lake, American Ballet Theater (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
Swan Lake is such a perennial favorite that the run of performances by American Ballet Theater at the Kennedy Center Opera House sold out before it opened. The work's popularity may make it easy to forget just how powerful it is in dramatic terms. Even in the reconfigured choreography by ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie, premiered in 2000, the combination of tragic love story and Tchaikovsky's masterful, poignant score is potent.
The focus in Swan Lake often tends to be on the character of Odette, the girl transformed into a swan by the evil sorceror von Rothbart. Principal dancer Hee Seo was extraordinary in the role at opening night on Wednesday, fragile and enigmatic in equal parts in the Act II pas de deux, to the accompaniment of the marvelous violin solo playing of concertmaster Oleg Rylatko. In Act III she was more seductive, with a naughty smile, as the Black Swan, quite striking in the infamous 32 fouetté turns. McKenzie's fourth act minimizes the centrality of Odette, but Seo again seemed like a creature from another world, only part woman.
At the center of this ballet, however, is really the role of Prince Siegfried, the only character to appear in all four acts, something that McKenzie's choreography made more apparent. Tchaikovsky's original inspiration for the character was King Ludwig II of Bavaria, another prince who would not marry as his family wanted him to do. Principal dancer Cory Stearns brought both remarkable strength and an aloof sadness to the role, a young man who seems uncomfortable in his skin, agonizing as the friends at his birthday party in Act I break off into couples.
Siegfried prefers to skulk into the darkness of the forest, where he finds this tragic creature neither fully woman nor something else. Ludwig II's homosexual inclinations, certainly known to Tchaikovsky, who struggled with the same yearning, make it easy to interpret Prince Siegfried's actions in this light. Ludwig was even found dead in a lake, having died in mysterious circumstances. In the original libretto, the story indicated by short references in Tchaikovsky's score, the lake rises up at the end and drowns both Odette and Siegfried, who fall into each other's arms. The famous B minor theme, the score's most famous motif, is associated with the flight of swans, a symbol of escape and freedom.
The ABT corps remains to these eyes one of the most disciplined and unified, and the scenes with the white swans were consistently beautiful, as the group of women responded as one to the movements of Odette in the second and fourth acts. McKenzie's most questionable decision in this choreography was to split the character of von Rothbart, with Patrick Ogle in the more character-dance role of the monster and Thomas Forster as the sorcerer's more seductive human form. Conductor Charles Barker led a flexible rendition of the score, with superlative playing by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, aside from a few horn bobbles in the opening scene.
Swan Lake runs through January 29, at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with different dancers in the lead roles.