When the curtain rises on David Walker's Act 1 courtyard in the Houston Ballet production of "Swan Lake," there is still something of a chill in the air resonating from the haunted Prologue. With its wild, overgrown park and ancient, moldering statue, the courtyard is not so terribly far removed in atmosphere from the earlier lakeside scene. It is one measure of the unity of the ballet's conception that makes it such a smashingly sumptuous production.
It is also a measure of this relatively young (10-year-old) troupe that last night, for its second performance of the ballet, the company could offer new casting in all the major roles.
Last night's lead dancers brought a sense of tragedy -- plumbing the work's mythical depths -- to a ballet that the night before had shone with a surface polish. Completely opposite in temperament to Li Cunxin's understated opening night Prince Siegfried was Kenneth McCombie's old-timey movie-idol demeanor in the role. With his arching eyebrows conveying a deep brooding and inner torment, McCombie could have been a silent movie actor in the intensity of his expressiveness. He handled the technical demands of the role with quiet aplomb rather than spectacular display, but his strong presence made the action clearer than it had seemed opening night.
As Odette/Odile, Mary McKendry -- new to the company this season by way of the London Festival Ballet -- was also the opposite of her counterpart, Janie Parker, who had showed to advantage in the Odile role. It was McKendry's Odette that was most impressive, as the knowledge of her own tragedy seemed to flow from her middle. Her slightly opened mouth seemed a red gash or wound, and in her initial contact with the Prince she was terror personified. Lured by the urge to fly, McKendry's Odette constantly strained upward, pulling her upper back into an arch. As the temptress Odile, however, she showed some unsteadiness in balance along with a brittleness of the legs, particularly in allegro passages.
The corps, too, looked even better than it had on opening night, some of its excesses in Acts 1 and 3 tamed so that its attractive brio and dash were tempered by classical restraint.
But as was true the night before, it is still Walker's sets and costumes and Houston Ballet Artistic Director Ben Stevenson's staging that are the draws of this production. Stevenson's compressed and tightened version of the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov production is of a piece with Walker's 19th-century transposition of the action. Particularly lovely are Stevenson's Act 2 groupings of the swans in repose, clearly inspired by the Romantic lithographs that had also been the source of Fokine's designs for "Les Sylphides."