Things were decidedly looking up for the Paris Opera Ballet's second performance of "Swan Lake" at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, with a new lineup of principals and other cast changes.
We're not talking about a miraculous transformation. Rudolph Nureyev's conceptual and choreographic reworkings of "Swan Lake" seemed as gracelessly wrongheaded as they did the first time. And it was again clear that this first coming of the Paris troupe to this country since 1948 was far from the Second Coming much of the advance fanfare had led one to expect.
Still, the drama of "Swan Lake" had much more life to it than the chloroformed account of Tuesday's opening night. And somehow the good looks, exceptionally lucid footwork and stylistic coherence of the company as a whole were more readily visible.
The most remarkable change was in Nureyev himself, in switching from the dual role of the Tutor-Rothbart figure to that of Prince Siegfried. All during the era of the waning of his physical prowess, Nureyev has been capable of revving himself up to surprising peaks on particular occasions. Last night was an example. It wasn't only that he was performing multiple spins, air turns and beats with a resilience that had appeared forever beyond his reach just the night before. That he would be a more dramatically credible Siegfried than Tuesday night's young, talented but very green Laurent Hilaire wasn't so far-fetched. What was amazing was that Nureyev would prove more convincing as a youthful Prince than an aging Tutor-Rothbart.
His finest moments were those of the pensive, character-revealing solo he invented for Siegfried at the end of Act 1. Even within the limited demands of this solo, the strains on Nureyev's physical being are painfully apparent. The passage was especially touching precisely because one could see through the awkwardnesses to the artistic maturity behind them -- the dramatic content of the solo was given poignant expression.
Artistic maturity also made the difference in Florence Clerc's portrayal of Odette-Odile. Clerc, 35, and seen here a decade ago in Baryshnikov's "Nutcracker," hasn't the steely attack or virtuosic endowments of 21-year-old Sylvie Guillem, who took the part opening night. But she has a gently introverted poetic quality and much of the Gallic elegance French dancers are noted for. More importantly, she knows how to shape steps into phrases that speak eloquently of her character's feelings.
Her Odette was a shy, sad, vulnerable creature, stricken with her inescapable enslavement by Rothbart. Though Clerc is less naturally suited to the flashy, devious Odile, her interpretation of the part was particularly interesting. She let Odile have so many Odette-like qualities that Siegfried's being taken in by the deception seemed a lot more believable than in many other performances.
Patrice Bart gave more substance to both sides of the Tutor-Rothbart role than Nureyev seemed able to Tuesday, perhaps because of the distractions that assail any artistic director (Nureyev heads the Paris Company) on an opening night. In any case, Bart's sterner Tutor and more sinister Rothbart made a good foil for Clerc's Odette and Nureyev's Prince. Bart's dancing, however, proved of no greater avail in the musically and choreographically senseless solo Nureyev, as choreographer, has inserted into the "Black Swan" sequence, which has been converted in this production from a duet into a trio.
There were numbers of other improvements over opening night, including, for instance, dancing by the corps de ballet that looked much less disarrayed, and a more poised, less frantic account of the Cygnets quartet in Act 2.
Nevertheless, the oppressive aspects of this "Swan Lake" were impossible to dispel -- such things as the abortive notion of Siegfried's dreaming the entire Odette-Odile portion of the plot; the visually self-defeating prospect of white swans dancing continually against an off-white background; and such ludicrous gambits as the taffy pull for possession of Odette between Siegfried and Rothbart at the end of the ballet.
Nor did a second viewing erase the impression of some company-wide weaknesses. However neatly and prettily they move, these dancers seem to use music merely as a cuing device, rather than a motivating force; they don't dance from within the music. And they tend to deliver steps as if each one were in a separate box, rather than linked to each other fluidly in a musical and expressive continuity. More's the pity that the Washington programs don't go beyond "Swan Lake" to display company strengths inaccessible in this context.