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Review: Louisville Ballet's 'Swan Lake' Is A Visual Delight

Sam English

Robert Curran’s revisioning of “Swan Lake” opened at the Brown Theatre on Friday, and the production largely succeeded in executing a careful balance among artistic progress, the use of new technologies and tradition.

Continuing the Louisville Ballet's commitment to working with local visual artists and expanding how audiences consider scenic design, this production features the laser design of Ryan Daly and Garrett Crabtree. Curran has also reframed the traditional approach to Odette/Odile and Siegfried.

Daly and Crabtree’s design is visually stunning and explodes beyond the proscenium, enveloping audiences in brilliant, rich hues. It is at its most aesthetically compelling in the “white” acts, when the laser projections and smoke intersect to create the illusion of the swans’ lake; this is also carried into Act Three, suggesting the lake is immediately outside the castle.

During Act One the projections are at times busy, detracting from the dancing. The rich jewel tones in Act Three effectively set up both the magnificence of the formal celebration of the prince’s birthday and also the individual princesses and their trains.

Daly and Crabtree — together with lighting designer Trad A Burns — are to be commended on the fusion of the laser design with the more traditional aspects of lighting design.

Curran sets his “Swan Lake” slightly in the future, in a mildly dystopian state. As with other recent re-interpretations, Curran is interested in the psychology of Siegfried and – in this high-tech environment – what is his reality and his fantasy/virtual reality.

Gone is the evil magician Rothbart who manipulates Odette/Odile; instead there is an intangible miasma of evil against which the power center of the kingdom – the Queen (Helen Daigle) – must fight to sustain her son’s life and sanity.

From a storytelling point of view this approach is most successful in the prologue, in which the Queen’s power is established, and the undertone of unease is manifested by the bulk of the company arrayed in a mostly unmoving phalanx of dark anonymity.

But the introduction of Odile in Act Three is less satisfactory. What is it in Siegfried’s encounter with the vulnerable Odette that allows this manifestation into his real world? How does the Queen’s insistence on his betrothal precipitate this version of his fantasy into the court? Clarifying this aspect of the storytelling can only make Curran’s version stronger and more intriguing for future audiences.

In Friday's performance, Mark Krieger and Natalia Ashikhmina were paired as Siegfried and Odette/Odile as they were in the 2013 production, but this was my first time viewing them in these roles.

The pair brings a dramatic intensity to this relationship. Their Act Three sparkles. As Odile, Ashikhmina was completely in control of the stage as well as of Siegfried; the precision of her footwork and delight in manipulating him created an inviolable bubble for their pas de deux and subsequent solos. Krieger’s tours en l’air were spectacular.

While much of the traditional arc of Act Three is maintained in this version, it is a dour environment. Despite the color of the laser projections and the sparkle of Krieger and Ashikhmina, the overwhelming effect is dark and oppressive: a funeral rather than a court ceremonial organized by a powerful monarch. It is in this act that the costuming by Curran and Tiffany Woodard is problematic.

Each of the prospective fiancées is garbed in black, as are their entourages and ambassadors; a mere peek of color suggests their national origins – Hungary (Ashley Thursby) with blue; Spain (Christy Corbett) with red; and Naples (Erica De La O) with white.

Moreover, the female-only courtiers not only wear solid black, this extends up into full facial masking with black opaque fabric covering their heads and faces entirely. Is this an expression of the Rothbart miasma? If so, why is it embodied only through the female form, when earlier we have see the Queen combat this?

Returning to Tradition

The two “white” acts are mostly traditional. It is here that we see what most audiences would recognize as “Swan Lake,” with the swans in classical tutus.

The corps of swans is mostly drawn from this season’s company of trainees, and they acquit themselves well. The Entrance of the Swans was not quite as precise as the iterated choreography requires, and the tempo of this variation was a bit too slow to sustain this variation, with musicians of the Louisville Orchestra under the baton on Tara Simoncic.

The “guardian” swans were danced by Emily Reinking O’Dell and Kateryna Sellars, and the popular Cygnets variation was danced, to audience acclaim, by Leigh Anne Albrechta, Erin Langston Evans, Annie Honebrink and Jordan Martin.

The same six dancers are joined, in Act One, by Ryan Stokes and Benjamin Wetzel for a Pas de huit. Act One also introduces us to the character of the Jester (Justin Michael Hogan), a relatively recent addition to the Swan Lake court, and one that is less effective in this more regimented conception of the court.

The Louisville Ballet's production is a “Swan Lake” for our times, one that respects the traditions of the nearly 150 years of its existence and makes a nod to more recent interpretations. It is also a production that also embraces the potential of current technology.

How technology continues to develop will influence whether Curran’s version becomes a signature for the early 21st century or lives on into a universal future.

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