Thursday, October 18, 2018

Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Joffrey's 'Swan Lake' Should Delight Even Us Ugly Ducklings -- Chicago Ballet Review

Ballet Review

Swan Lake
Joffrey Ballet
at Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru October 28

In the spring of 2008, I was in St. Petersburg, Russia for a few days, on a vacation that also took me to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki.

St. Petersburg is home to the Mariinsky Theatre and its famed Mariinsky Ballet, better known as the Kirov outside Russia. Supposedly, it ranks with the Bolshoi Ballet as the world's most prestigious (though the Joffrey would also seem to be near such company).

I'm not certain if was actually the Kirov/Mariinsky that was performing Swan Lake within the Mariinsky Theatre when I was in St. Petersburg--it may have been another company using the theater--but either way, I tried to get a ticket but couldn't.

Sold out. No Russian ticket brokers I could find. No hotel concierge with the right connections. No ins with Putin. No Swan Lake for me at the Mariinsky.

Later that year, I did make a point of going to Chicago's Auditorium Theatre when the Kirov came to town to perform the ballet Giselle, which along with The Nutcracker stood as the only classical narrative ballet I've ever seen.

Photo credit on all: Cheryl Mann
That is, until Wednesday night, when I attended--also at the Auditorium--the opening performance of the Joffrey's current run of Swan Lake.

Per this Chicago Tribune preview by Lauren Warnecke, the current staging is a reprise of one
presented by the Joffrey in 2014, which stands the highest-grossing production in the company’s history.

The production features choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, the Tony-winning choreographer responsible for re-imagining The Nutcracker for the Joffrey beginning in 2016. (I saw it last December and was blown away.)

Wheeldon's Swan Lake was created for the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004, but clearly has been warmly welcomed in Chicago, both in 2014 and--per opening night--now.

And even to the eyes of someone with absolutely no expertise in assessing the technicalities of ballet, the dancing was absolutely astonishing.

On Wednesday, in the dual doppelgänger roles of Odette & Odile, Victoria Jaiani pirouetted--i.e. spun on one tippy-toe--past the point of ready comprehension, even given the rarefied air of prima ballerinas.

As Prince Siegfried--but also, in this production, "The Principal Dancer," which I'll try to explain below--Dylan Gutierrez was also demonstrably terrific, and everyone onstage was a delight to watch.

Simply as a night of ballet, culture, entertainment, etc., Joffrey's Swan Lake is visually rapturous and I doubt anyone will be less than dazzled.

But although my appreciation reached emotional embrace by the end of the nearly 3-hour ballet, in full I wasn't nearly as swept up as I was by The Nutcracker--likewise composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky--whether the Wheeldon edition neatly weaving in the 1893 Columbian Exposition or the Joffrey's previous longstanding version by its co-founder Robert Joffrey.

I had read  Swan Lake's synopsis on Wikipedia, so roughly knew that, classically, it concerns the bachelor Prince Siegfried meeting and falling in love with a maiden named Odette, who--as with several friends at the aptly named lake--turns into a swan each night due to a spell cast by the nefarious Rothbart (embodied here, on opening night, by Fabrice Camels).  

At a ball in Act III--of the four-act ballet, done with two intermissions at the Auditorium--Rothbart presents an Odette look-alike named Odile (both danced by the same woman) and tricks Siegfried into thinking the latter is the former.

Especially with this being my initial foray into Swan Lake, I found this narrative somewhat convoluted and confusing, and on top of it--as I know largely due to reading Warnecke's article--Wheeldon introduced a ballet-within-a-ballet conceit that has the first half-hour taking place in a dance studio and other scenes blurring the lines. (Hence the Siegfried-Principal Dancer duality.)

The synopsis is printed in the program, but even in reading it pre-show, I found myself--throughout the first half, at least--beguiled by the beauty of the dancing but largely baffled by any storyline I was supposed to follow.

Without Wikipedia or the program book, I doubt I could clearly explain anything about the narrative based simply on witnessing it at face value.

Although the dancing of some small groups and/or soloists in the guise of Russians, Spaniards, Czardas, Can-Can dancers and others was fabulous, please don't ask me to explain their purpose in the plot line.

Eventually, I grasped enough to have the love story move me a bit, and with brilliant dancing, splendid music by Tchaikovsky--blissfully rendered by the Chicago Philharmonic--and beautiful scenery, costumes and performers, I wouldn't suggest that "not completely getting it" (including the reasons behind Wheeldon's unique spin) detracts all that greatly.

Yet while the artistry was magnificent, and at times absolutely mesmerizing, overall I was a tad less smitten as I might have hoped.

Certainly, avowed ballet aficionados should see Swan Lake if they never have, and even if just to a level matching mine, your enjoyment should be plentiful.

But if you're something of a cultural dilettante and wondering if this is the one ballet you should see in Chicago before year's end...

...well, that's a tough nut to crack.

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