Most stagings of Swan Lake are modeled after the 1895 production choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The ballet takes place on the eve of the 21st birthday of Prince Siegfried, heir apparent to the throne. A celebratory hunt with his friends leads Siegfried to a forest glade, where he encounters a flock of swans who transform into maidens at night.
In his rendition, Milwaukee Ballet artistic director and choreographer Michael Pink preserves the circa-19th century German setting, but condenses the three (sometimes four) act ballet to two. During the prologue, Count von Rothbart (Timothy O’Donnell) plots his rise to power by conjuring Odile (Marize Fumero), a seductress whose job it is to persuade Siegfried (Davit Hovhannisyan) to marry him. She does this by leading Siegfried to assume that she is Odette (Luz San Miguel), a swan maiden to whom he falls in love on the night before he must choose his bride.
Swan Lake at the Milwaukee Ballet Company; photo by Rachel MalehornPink takes a number of liberties with the story, though fewer than I assumed he would, given his penchant for transforming and modernizing fairytale ballets. He proposes that the swan/human hybrid Odette is the spirit of Siegfried’s true love, a princess who disappeared in childhood and was placed under a curse by von Rothbart as part of his plan to assume the throne (hence the reason she’s a swan). The plan is thwarted by Siegfried, who discovers the ruse and returns to Odette.
In many versions, Odette and Siegfried plunge to their death in order to be together forever. Here, Pink further vilifies von Rothbart, who wields a knife and kills Odette. The end result is the same as Siegfried opts to follow her to the afterlife while von Rothbart and Odile rise to rule the kingdom.
An ongoing question associated with Classical revivals is whether they offer universal themes that are relatable today. Swan Lake is not the only ballet with an unhappy ending, but its tragedy is its triumph – an example of true love superseding earthly happiness. Pink attempts to extrapolate a more logical storyline to get inside von Rothbart’s motivations, but I’m not sure it helps. After all, the original 1877 production by Julius Reisinger, which preceded the Petipa/Ivanov version and was generally perceived as a failure, was criticized most for its complicated libretto. Pink’s additions create a confusing transition between two scenes depicting Princess Odette’s disappearance and Siegfried’s pre-birthday celebrations, further muddying an already-convoluted tale.
Perhaps the biggest change is the splitting of the Odette/Odile character into two roles, which is conventionally danced by one ballerina. Doing so solves the very real problem of trying to get Odette and Odile on stage at the same time – solutions have run the gamut, including body doubles and holograms. Perhaps the biggest drawback here is losing the rite of passage associated with a ballerina dancing the combined Odette/Odile, which requires a dramatic range unparalleled by other roles from the Classical period. San Miguel as Odette and Fumero as Odile are perfectly cast, and that’s essentially the point – done well, it’s exhilarating to see one dancer portray both the protagonist and the antagonist.
Particularly verboten is messing with the “white act,” in which Odette and the corps de ballet dance lakeside. Full disclosure: Despite my best efforts, the merged first act, which rolls directly into the lake scene, proved too much for my bladder, but Pink seems to have kept the best bits in while infusing the choreography with his lyrical, more current style of dancing. José Varona’s costumes ditch the Classical look for scaled-back dance dresses, bare legs and hair down. This beautifully portrays these half-human swan maidens, and further vilifies Odile, who wears the traditional pancake-shaped tutu.
Equally as sacred is the grand pas de deux, which serves as example of technical mastery for both Siegfried and Odile, who famously performs 32 fouette turns during the coda. Pink sticks to the original here, leaving nowhere to hide. A few wobbles from Fumero and Hovhannisyan, both excellent technicians, could have been opening night jitters or end-of-season fatigue. (In fairness to them, they weren’t the only ones struggling to stick all the landings.)
The true hero of Swan Lake is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose magnificent score is masterfully played by the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. It’s brilliant, and, in large part, why this ballet has withstood the test of time. Pink’s interpretation of the last two minutes is simply perfect: The swans face upstage, softly pulsing their arms as they bourree in the mist. They’re bathed in David Grill’s dreamy moonlight, accompanied by twinkling arpeggios from harpist Ann Lobotzke. A single long tone on the French horn swells from the pit. Siegfried and Odette embrace above the stage, together for eternity.
Go See It: Swan Lake presented by the Milwaukee Ballet; through June 3, 2018; Marcus Center for the Performing Arts