Poor Prince Siegfried: such bad luck with women. If only he’d listened to his mother at the start of “Swan Lake” and had married one of those nice, normal court ladies in the first act, he could have lived out his years hunting and drinking like any other medieval royal.
Instead, as Cory Stearns played him in American Ballet Theatre’s handsomely dressed but rather muted production at Wolf Trap on Thursday night, Siegfried left the strongest impression with the last breath of his young life, leaping to drown himself with spectacular form and exhilarating abandon alongside his ill-chosen lover, the cursed Princess Odette (Hee Seo).
Where had Stearns hidden all that bounding energy in the preceding two hours? His Siegfried was a sincere, well-meaning lad, but this was not a blazing, heart-driven performance, neither in the dynamic quality of his flights across the stage nor in his warmish rapport with Seo. He wasn’t alone in betraying shades of fatigue. The opening of ABT’s three-night series at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center came after the company closed a lengthy season in New York, which probably accounts for a less-than-sparkling display.
Still, the level of dancing was high, with a few missteps. Seo was deeply sympathetic as Odette, building trust in her new lover bit by bit. But she was less secure as the man-hungry doppelganger Odile in the ballet's third act, faltering on her fouettés and finally abandoning those whipping turns prematurely. I’d wager her pointe shoes had softened too soon in the post-rainstorm humidity of the open-air stage. More striking was the grandeur she had conveyed earlier as Odette in the ballet’s luminous second act. Here, she was strong and soft at will, with crisp, decisive balances and a smooth, slowly unfolding openness that found its most liberated articulation in the winglike lift of her arms and the high stretch of her legs.
Seo invested small moments with subtle, meaningful drama: She demonstrated a growing faith in Stearns’s Siegfried at the end of each assisted pirouette, placing her hand in his and letting it linger more with every turn, as one of Tchaikovsky’s sweetest, most ethereal musical passages bound them together. Charles Barker conducted with fine attention to the dancers.
“Swan Lake’s” second act is the most beautiful section of ABT's production, and it is all about freedom and trust. The ballet centers not so much on good vs. evil but on how the scales tip in one’s quest for freedom. Is the search for one’s own soul going to be empowering or destructive? This is the quest that unites Siegfried and Odette — he wants to get away from his mother and his princely duties, and Odette wants to break the spell cast by Von Rothbart, a sorcerer, that has imprisoned her in swan form. In these longings our heroes find kinship with anyone who feels captive to misunderstanding, who wants nothing to do with old ways and conventions.
And yet Siegfried and Odette are poison for each other. If she’s a mess of trouble — doomed to be a freak unless true love comes along — Siegfried is a lousy hero. Him, true? How easy Siegfried forgets Odette in the third act, when he meets Odile, the trickster daughter of Von Rothbart. Vows are forgotten, lives destroyed.
The tragedy of human weakness could be deliciously amplified here, but the ABT production doesn’t take advantage of it. Dramatically and philosophically, it’s a flawed version, staged by artistic director Kevin McKenzie after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. McKenzie shortens the final act, robbing the ballet of its full force, and he divides the role of sorcerer Von Rothbart between two male dancers. One is a handsome hotty who can pass as human and seduce women — on Thursday, this was Calvin Royal III, elegant but not dangerous — and the second is a goliath reptile draped in algae who haunts the lake (Thomas Forster took on this thankless role). This double part is a costuming situation that adds nothing expressively. It only detracts from the two people, Siegfried and Odette, whom the audience cares most about, and it suggests a lack of faith in their very human story.
Some of the evening’s finest dancing was in the first act’s pas de trois, with the light-footed and serenely musical Joseph Gorak, Catherine Hurlin and Katherine Williams.
American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake Though Saturday at Wolf Trap. wolftrap.org. On Saturday, the cast will be led by Devon Teuscher and corps member Aran Bell, whose promotion to soloist takes effect in September.