A Bird of a Different Feather

The National Ballet of Canada's
The National Ballet of Canada's "Swan Lake, " now at the Kennedy Center, puts Siegfried (Aleksandar Antonijevic) in the foreground while Odette (Greta Hodgkinson) is effectively grounded. (By Cylla Von Tiedemann -- National Ballet Of Canada Via The Kennedy Center)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006

If you've always thought of "Swan Lake" as being all about the ballerina, the National Ballet of Canada has news for you. Move aside, tutus. This is a man's world.

In James Kudelka's version of the classic work, performed by the Canadian troupe Tuesday at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the men hold the spotlight. Purists, don't worry: The swans are still women (the homoeroticism doesn't go quite as far as in Matthew Bourne's fabulously alternative Broadway version, with its flocks of boy birds). But this is definitely Prince Siegfried's story, his journey to find himself, and leading him on that journey is not the swan princess Odette but the manipulative sorcerer Rothbart, who figures in nearly every scene.

This is not a full overhaul of the ballet, but rather a change in emphasis. The theme remains largely the same -- the flourishing of true love outside the confines of society, a doomed love that death can't tarnish. Kudelka tinkers with the cast of characters, underscoring Rothbart, who in more traditional accounts is usually confined to lurking behind rocks. Odette, the juicy starring role that ballerinas live for, is effectively sidelined in this production.

The problem with this lavishly dressed and designed production, which premiered in Toronto in 1999 and is being seen in this country for the first time here, is that the tinkerings don't add up to improvements. Though certain dramatic moments are played up, the ballet feels emotionally flat. The love story at its core has been overshadowed; neither Siegfried nor Odette is fleshed out enough to feel real and sympathetic. If it's a wild ride of the heart you're after in "Swan Lake," this version may not be for you.

Nor has Kudelka succeeded in improving upon the classic choreography. There are passages of beauty and musicality -- particularly in the final lakeside scene, with the waves of swans matching the sweep of the Tchaikovsky score -- and there are several meaty solos danced with verve and passion. But there are also more than a few episodes of banal choreography that underwhelms at best and fights with the music at worst.

A dramatic tone is set through a prologue in which a magnificently winged Rothbart (Ryan Boorne) plunges a sword into the stage as a premonition of the destruction to come. The drama quickly dials down a few notches, however, and it takes a while for any more momentum to build. Prince Siegfried, a regal looking Aleksandar Antonijevic, is feted on his birthday not by the royal court in all its finery but by his drinking buddies.

The music calls for pomp -- but we're given eight guys and a wench, and they're not much of a party. The dancing was limited to a rather humdrum roll call of male technique. Missing was a sense of connection among the dancers -- some good-natured competitiveness, perhaps, or a bit of camaraderie -- to fill out the picture emotionally. When the Queen makes an appearance to remind her son that he must choose a bride, which is typically the heart of the scene, it feels like an afterthought. Kudelka overlooks the key tension in these opening moments, the conflict felt by a prince torn between his professional duties and a heart that longs for freedom. When, in the traditional version, the stage is filled with waltzing couples blithely demonstrating how wonderful marriage and court life are, and the Prince stands coldly apart, you get this message. But here, when the stage is filled with the Prince's pals, passing around the wench and the wine cups, and he stands coldly apart, the message is less clear. Does he just not care for this gal in particular (danced with bright vigor by Stephanie Hutchison) or is he put off by women in general? Or does the crowd simply bore him?

Rothbart reappears by the titular lake in Act 2, turning the pas de deux between the Prince and Odette into a somewhat clumsy threesome. It's a harsh environment for love to blossom in, anyway, what with the mood-killing bright lights -- there's no moonlight here, but rather the cold glare of a cloudy sky. With Rothbart squiring her around, poor Odette, the willowy, doe-eyed Greta Hodgkinson, can't express her feelings, so no sparks fly between her and the Prince. Oddly, Kudelka succeeds in throwing water on the hottest love scene of the evening.

The third act, the ball that the Queen has organized to force her son to finally choose a mate, is the most successful, an eye-filling spectacle of glowing lanterns and jewel-toned costumes. Portaying the second half of her dual role, Hodgkinson makes a strong impression as the party-crashing Odile, the brilliant and gleefully vicious black swan escorted in by Rothbart to trick the Prince into breaking his vow to Odette.

A nicely executed magic trick involving waves of billowing silk depicts a catastrophic flooding of the castle as Prince Siegfried breaks his promise. In keeping with the relocated focus of this ballet, it is not Odette who throws herself into the lake in the end, nor do Odette and Siegfried leap in together in a suicide pact. It is Siegfried alone who perishes, quite picturesquely, after a gallant and protracted struggle with Rothbart.

What becomes of Odette? She gets a bit forgotten amid more swirling silk. But then, she's not really the point, is she?

Performances continue through Sunday.

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