Swan Lake in Paris: a chalice half empty or half full?

Le Lac des Cygnes, February 26, 2019, Paris Opera Ballet.

[Nb : des passages de l’article sont traduits en français]

Swan Lake confronts the dancers and audience with musical leitmotifs, archetypes, story elements (down to the prince’s name), and dramatic conundrums that all seem to have been lifted willy-nilly from Richard Wagner.

Today, for those who worship ballet, including dancers, a perfect performance of Swan Lake ranks right up there with the Holy Grail. Yet the first full-length performances in the West only happened only a little over a half-century ago. Each version you see picks and choses from a plethora of conflicting Russian memories. The multiple adaptations of this fairy tale so Manicheaen that it’s downright biblical – good vs. evil, white vs. black, angelic vs. satanic – most often defy us to believe in it. The basic story kind of remains the same but “God is in the details,” as Mies van der Rohe once pronounced. The details and overall look of some or other productions, just as the projection and nuance of some or other dancers, either works for you or does not despite the inebriating seductiveness of Tchaikovsky’s thundering score.

Siegfried

Boast not thyself of to-morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. Proverbs 27:1

Just as the Templars and others obsessed with the Grail did, many ballet dancers can   succumb to wounds. The re-re-re-castings for this series due to injuries have engendered a kind of “hesitation waltz” on stage.

As he settled in to his mini-throne downstage right on February 26th, Florian Magnenet (originally only an understudy) was clearly exhausted already, probably due to doing double-duty in a punishingly hyperkinetic modern ballet across town on other nights. Once it was clear he had to do this ballet, why hadn’t the director released him and used an understudy for the Goeke? While the company prides itself on versatility, it is also big enough that another could have taken over that chore.

Perhaps Magnenet was using his eyes and face to dramatize the prince, looking soulful or something (the stuff that comped critics can see easily from their seats). But raised eyebrows do not read into outer space. From the cheap seats you only see if the body acts through how it phrases the movement, through the way an extension is carried down to the finish, through the way a spine arches. Nothing happened, Magnenet’s body didn’t yearn. I saw a nice young man, not particularly aching with questions, tiredly polite throughout Act I. While at first I had hoped he was under-dancing on purpose for some narrative reason, the Nureyev adagio variation confirmed that the music was indeed more melancholy than this prince. Was one foot aching instead?

« Florian Magnenet […] était clairement déjà épuisé par son double-emploi dans une purge moderne et inutilement hyperkinétique exécutée de l’autre côté de la ville les autres soirs.

Peut-être Magnenet utilisait-il ses yeux ou son visage pour rendre son prince dramatique, éloquent ou quelque chose du genre […]. Mais un froncement de sourcils ne se lit pas sur longue distance. […] Rien ne se passait ; le corps de Magnenet n’aspirait à rien. J’ai vu un gentil garçon, qui ne souffrait pas particulièrement de questionnement existentiel […]. Souffrait-il plutôt d’un pied ? »

Odette

Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies. Proverbs 31:10

And…Odile

The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings’ palaces. Proverbs 30:28

While for some viewers, the three hours of Swan Lake boil down to the thirty seconds of Odile’s 32 fouetté turns, for me the alchemy of partnering matters more than anything else. As it should. This is a love story, not a circus act.

Due to the casting shuffles, our Elsa/Odette and Kundry/Odile seemed as surprised as the Siegfried to have landed up on the same stage. While this potentially could create mutual fireworks, alas, the end result was indeed as if each one of the pair was singing in a different opera.

For all of Act II on February 26th, Amandine Albisson unleashed a powerful bird with a magnetic wingspan and passion and thickly contoured and flowing lines. Yet she seemed to be beating her wings against the pane of glass that was Florian Magnenet. I had last seen her in December in complete dramatic syncronicity with the brazenly woke and gorgeously expressive body of Audric Bezard in La Dame aux camelias. There they called out, and responded to, all of the emotions embodied by Shakepeare’s Sonnet 88 [The one that begins with “If thou should be disposed to set me light.”] I’d put my draft of a review aside, utterly certain that Bezard and Albisson would be reunited in Swan Lake. Therefore I knew that coming off of that high, seeing her with another guy, was going to be hard to take no matter what. But not this hard. Here Albisson’s Odette was ready to release herself into the moment. But while she tried to engage the cautious and self-effacing Magnenet, synchronicity just didn’t happen. Indeed their rapport once got so confused they lost the counts and ended up elegantly walking around each other at one moment during the grand adagio.

« Durant tout l’acte II, le 26 février, Amandine Albisson a déployé un puissant oiseau doté de magnétiques battements d’ailes, de passion et de lignes à la fois vigoureusement dessinées et fluides. Et pourtant, elle semblait abîmer ses ailes contre la paroi vitrée qu’était Florian Magnenet. »

« A un moment, leur rapport devint si confus qu’ils perdirent les comptes et se retrouvèrent à se tourner autour pendant le grand adage. » […]

This is such a pity. Albisson put all kinds of imagination into variations on the duality of femininity. I particularly appreciated how her Odette’s and Odile’s neck and spine moved in completely differently ways and kept sending new and different energies all the way out to her fingertips and down through her toes. I didn’t need binoculars in Act IV in order to be hit by the physicality of the pure despair of her Odette. Magnenet’s Siegfried had warmed up a little by the end. His back came alive. That was nice.

« Quel dommage, Albisson met toutes sortes d’intentions dans ses variations sur le thème de la dualité féminine. J’ai particulièrement apprécié la façon dont le cou et le dos de son Odette et son Odile se mouvaient de manière complètement différente » […]

Rothbart

The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon the rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid. Proverbs 30:19

François Alu knows how to connect with the audience as well as with everyone on stage. His Tutor/von Rothbart villain, a role puffed up into a really danced one by Nureyev, pretty much took over the narrative. Even before his Act III variation – as startlingly accelerated and decelerated as the flicker of the tongue of a venomous snake – Alu carved out his space with fiery intelligence and chutzpah.

« François Alu a le don d’aimanter les spectateurs. Son tuteur/von Rothbart a peu ou prou volé la vedette au couple principal. Même avant sa variation de l’acte III – aux accélérations et décélérations aussi imprévisibles que les oscillations d’une langue de serpent – Alu a fait sa place avec intelligence et culot. » […]

As the Tutor in Act I, Alu concentrated on insinuating himself as a suave enabler, a lithe opportunist. Throughout the evening, he offered more eye-contact to both Albisson and Magnenet than they seemed to be offering to each other (and yes you can see it from far away: it impels the head and the neck and the spine in a small way that reads large). In the Black Pas, Albisson not only leaned over to catch this von Rothbart’s hints of how to vamp, she then leaned in to him, whispering gleeful reports of her triumph into the ear of this superb partner in crime.

« A l’acte I, en tuteur, Alu s’appliquait à apparaître comme un suave entremetteur, un agile opportuniste. Durant toute la soirée, il a échangé plus de regards aussi bien avec Albisson qu’avec Magnenet que les deux danseurs n’en ont échangé entre eux.

Dans le pas de deux du cygne noir, Albisson ne basculait pas seulement sur ce von Rothbart pour recevoir des conseils de séduction, elle se penchait aussi vers lui pour murmurer à l’oreille de son partenaire en méfaits l’état d’avancée de son triomphe. »

And kudos.

To Francesco Mura, as sharp as a knife in the pas de trois and the Neapolitan. To Marine Ganio’s gentle grace and feathery footwork in the Neapolitan, too. To Bianca Scudamore and Alice Catonnet in the pas de trois. All four of them have the ballon and presence and charisma that make watching dancers dance so addictive. While I may not have found the Holy Grail during this performance of Swan Lake, the lesser Knights of the Round Table – in particular the magnificently precise and plush members of the corps de ballet! – did not let me down.

* The quotes are from the King James version of The Bible.

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