Peter Martins, artistic director and chief supplier of new repertory to the New York City Ballet, may have had several reasons – besides aesthetic impulse, which one must in good faith assume – for staging his version of Swan Lake, the work synonymous with classical dancing in the general consciousness. (His first production of the ballet was mounted on his alma mater, the Royal Danish Ballet, in 1996; now he has adapted that interpretation for the NYCB, employing a mind-boggling variety of casts.)
One of Martins’s motives may have been ambition – the desire, exemplified by Peter Schaufuss, Martins’s contemporary and RDB comrade, to register his own interpretation of the three “big” nineteenth-century ballets that owe so much of their glory to their Tchaikovsky scores. Martins is prevented (I hope) from tackling The Nutcracker by the existence of Balanchine’s enchanting version, the progenitor of the Nutcracker mania that prevails in ballet land at snowflake time; he has already tackled The Sleeping Beauty. Another, equally understandable motive is box office. The man has to sell tickets; his plight is the same as Kevin McKenzie’s over at ABT. Full-evening story ballets attract an audience – regardless, apparently, of their ability to entertain or inspire.
NYCB’s publicists have their work cut out for them, since Martins’s Swan Lake – like his Sleeping Beauty – does little to ingratiate itself with its audience. As I noted in my review of the Copenhagen production (“Star Search,” New York, April 14, 1997), Martins duly pays his respects to his inspired predecessors. He has borrowed from Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the pair who created the first viable choreographic realization of the Tchaikovsky score, and from Balanchine’s ingenious and haunting one-act version for the NYCB. Giving this inheritance his own gloss, however, and creating new material that emphasizes a scintillating display of technique at the expense of soul-stirring poetry, Martins has fashioned a piece that is at heart anti-Romantic. He sets in motion an intricate mechanism of dazzling steps, the material relentlessly patterned on a grid and frontally oriented, as if the subtleties offered by the oblique or the curved were anathema. Story, character, communal contexts, mood, and metaphor – essential to Swan Lake – are indicated only fitfully and, one feels, grudgingly. The result is both unappealing and confusing.
The first cast for the NYCB production was headed by Darci Kistler, also slated to do the Live From Lincoln Center telecast, which for better or worse provides a lasting record. Alas, for some time now she has been plagued by physical weaknesses that prevent her from embodying her soaring imagination. Kistler was sympathetically partnered by Damian Woetzel, who actually created a character in the prevailing vacuum. The other Swan Queen I saw was Monique Meunier, whose vast, peculiar talent has never been properly cultivated. Here she exhibited a feral quality that might be the key to a powerful interpretation, but otherwise she looked as if she were on foreign turf without passport or compass. With few exceptions, the others onstage, striving for high-energy precision – an NYCB hallmark that Martins has turned into a fetish – had a paper-doll flatness and zero affect.
The most moving aspect of this production is, oddly, its scenery. Designed by Per Kirkeby, an acclaimed Danish painter, it’s an abstract gloss on the psychological dimension of Swan Lake, its colors somber or icy, its slashes of paint – even when overlaid by a thin veil of architecture indicating civil habitation – evoking tangled underwater roots in which one might be tempted to drown.