Ballet

Returning to centre stage

Sumptuous costumes, flurries of bravura dancing and a stroke of brilliant innovation grace the National’s revamped Swan Lake

John Bemrose May 17 1999
Ballet

Returning to centre stage

Sumptuous costumes, flurries of bravura dancing and a stroke of brilliant innovation grace the National’s revamped Swan Lake

John Bemrose May 17 1999

Returning to centre stage

Ballet

Sumptuous costumes, flurries of bravura dancing and a stroke of brilliant innovation grace the National’s revamped Swan Lake

John Bemrose

New productions of Swan Lake do not come along every day. In fact, it has been 32 years since the National Ballet of Canada last put its imprint on Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. And so the excitement was palpable last week as the curtain opened in Toronto’s Hummingbird Centre on a much-bally-hooed $ 1.6-million version choreographed by the company’s artistic director, James Kudelka. Many in the capacity crowd applauded as soon as they glimpsed designer Santo Loquasto’s autumnal set with its miniature castle and stormy, branch-laced sky. They clapped at intervals throughout the evening as they watched the story of the young prince who falls in love with the Queen of the Swans, only to be thwarted by a wicked sorcerer. They applauded the sumptuous costumes and the flurries of bravura dancing. And at the end, they stood on their feet and cheered as the curtain swept over the grieving Swan Queen, quivering en pointe over the body of her lover.

This Swan Lake (which will travel to Ottawa, Saskatoon, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Montreal)

was born amid controversy and high hopes. Throughout the ballet’s creation, Kudelka and the National have been engaged in a legal battle with Kimberly Glasco, the ballerina he fired last December. The principal dan-

cer claimed she was let go—unjustly— for opposing Kudelka’s plans for the expensive production at a time when the National is carrying a $3-million debt. And while all costs of the show have been covered by a fund-raising

drive, it certainly represents a daring move at a time when government cutbacks have reduced the company’s operating budget to $14 million from $17 million. But Kudelka believes that the National must aggressively renew

its repertoire if it is to expand its audiences and maintain the enviable reputation it earned in the ’70s and ’80s. “Big ballet companies are defined by their versions of the three Tchaikovsky ballets, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty,” says the intense 43year-old former dancer. “These are

the ones that have put the National Ballet on the international stage as a large-scale ballet company.”

Kudelka—whose 1995 revamping of The Nutcracker confirmed his reputation as one of North America’s pre-eminent choreographers—believes that changes in the dance world made

the time ripe to replace the company’s 1967 Swan Lake, created by the great Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. For one, more skilled dancers are emerging. “More dancers can do more things today,” Kudelka comments. “Training is better. The whole science of treating injuries is more exact: there are fewer scars on knees. Even the lamps that light the stage are brighter now than they were in the ’60s.” He adds that he wants the new Swan Lake to “reflect all those advances and show what dancing can be.” He has other aims as well, connected to the falling popularity of classical ballet since the heady days when great stars such as Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov drew multitudes of new fans. But those leading lights are gone now: Nureyev died in 1993, Baryshnikov has turned to modern dance, and Karen Kain, Canada’s most recognizable international dancer, retired in 1998. Kudelka believes that many ballet companies are foundering because they have failed to realize that star-oriented performances are no longer possible. He would like to set a new course for the National by creating work that people want to see not because it features big names, or out of some vague, dutiful sense that ballet is good for them. “My job,” he says, “is to make sure that dance is still evolving and having some kind of importance that goes beyond the sort of zany superstar importance it had a decade or two ago. The company has to do work whose meaning spills beyond the footlights.” How far has he succeeded in the new Swan Lakei He has certainly displayed the National’s deep talent pool to great efifect. Few choreographers can move a corps de ballet with as much originality and intricacy as Kudelka. He knows how to offset the pleasure of mass synchronized movement with telling details—as in the enthralling scene when the evil sorcerer, Rothbart (Rex Harrington), dances out his triumph with a covey of black swans fluttering in his wake. Kudelka has also elicited inspired performances from many of his secondary soloists, including Martine Lamy. Her rollicking dancing wench sets Siegfried’s hunting compan-

ions leaping about with the exuberance of young bucks at rutting time.

Rothbart, who has trapped the Swan Queen in a spell, is pivotal to this production. In many Swan Lakes, the sorcerer hovers mainly in the background, clad in a rather ludicrous owl outfit. But Kudelka has created a more human Rothbart who dresses sveltely in headband and silky skins, like an Apache warrior who has discovered haute couture. And in Act 2, instead of keeping out of the way when Prince Siegfried (Aleksander Antonijevic) and the Swan Queen, Odette (Greta Hodgkinson), first meet, this Rothbart insinuates himself with snaky insistence between the would-be lovers.

It is at this point that the conflicts and themes of Swan Lake begin to grow muddy. Although Harrington gives a splendid performance—he is the most supple and charismatic of all the National’s male dancers—his dominant Rothbart is one reason why the relationship between the Swan Queen and Siegfried never catches fire. And through the rest of the ballet, Rothbart is so much in their faces that relations among the three grow sexually ambiguous.

Perhaps this is what Kudelka intended, in which case an unusual spin is given to the ballet—which traditionally, after all, depends on a conventional love bond. Or perhaps Antonijevic and Hodgkinson simply do not have the erotic chemistry to strike a spark. Hodgkinson is superb at suggesting the Swan Queen’s enervation under Rothbart’s spell: she gives little nervous flicks of her head that are like signals from hell. And Antonijevic’s proud, powerful arabesques and leaps are thrilling. But their ultimately unbelievable relationship leaves a hole at the centre of the tale.

Only in the final scene of this Swan Lake does their tragedy really come alive. In most productions, both lovers drown. But in a brilliant stroke, Kudelka has Odette survive her prince, and Hodgkinson’s miming of her grief is powerfully affecting. The moment offers a glimpse of the heights the production might have risen to—and might reach yet as it matures. EH]