A Mikhailovsky Classical Ballet and Opera Theatre production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, June 14. Continues until June 16
Swan Lake is always best when it gets dark, in the second act, and this glistening real-deal production from St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Classical Ballet and Opera Theatre does not disappoint.
The show’s Odette (and her “black swan”, Odile) is simply ravishing. It’s not just that Ukraine-born Oksana Bondareva (who performs in all the evening shows here) can bend backwards into a perfect C, her spine as supple as a swan’s neck, or extend infinitely into feather-light arabesques. As the oppressed swan queen, she achieves an emotional intensity that falls somewhere between aching and ecstasy, fear and sensuality, as she trembles in Siegfried’s arms.
It’s a performance, and a production, that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who likes ballet. Which makes it a shame that so few people are going to see it; on its opening two nights, the Queen E. looked about half full, if that. When was the last time you saw Swan Lake performed by one of Russia’s most buzzed-about companies, complete with a 90-member cast and a 63-member orchestra? In fact, there are probably thousands of people who live here who have eagerly seen Black Swan but never Swan Lake. This production would actually be a very good way to start.
This Swan is a resurrection and updating of the seminal Alexander Gorsky version that the Bolshoi broke into the West with during 1956 and the height of the Cold War. In London, when the Mikhailovsky debuted this show in January, it packed the Coliseum there, drew out the glitterati, and garnered big critical praise. Thanks to a cancellation of a big New York opening, this is the Mikhailovsky’s only North American date—and debut. Right here in Vancouver. Hello? Anybody listening?
The version is not show-offy, and it isn’t reinventing the classic, but it is elegant and richly staged. The opening act is all burnt-orange autumn, enveloped with layers of rusty-hued fabric oak leaves; the lake scenes are a dreamy tableau of craggy trees silhouetted against the Monet-like swirl of water at twilight. To see row upon row of perfectly frozen, white-tutu-sporting “swans”, on tip-toe, against its shadowy background is just how you might have imagined an idealized Swan Lake. There is some gorgeously sculptured patterning of this willowy corps, especially in the fourth act.
As for the other leads, unfortunately young Victor Lebedev has technical chops but is like a delicate schoolboy paired with this Odette; her sensual heat is never matched, especially in a few air kisses he doles out. The female dancers here rule (unlike in the recent macho-male-powered National Ballet of Cuba show that came here), but the men are not all secondary: Alexey Kuznetsov is the hardest-working guy, bar none, as the Jester that wins over the audience, pulling off some killer grand jetés and mid-air rolls. And Mikhail Venshchikov’s Evil Genius is so sinister in his voluminous black wings and hawklike nose that the audience joyfully booed him after the third act, when he pretended to close the curtains with a Mandrake the Magician–like fluttering of his fingers.
And if the dance isn’t enough for you, come to hear Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s famous score live: under Valery Ovsyanikov’s baton, the orchestra is as adept at holding back with the soft, fluttering strings as it is at letting loose on the thunderous siss-boom-bahs.
This Swan is polished, but is not coldly perfect—which is meant as a compliment. Something happened on Thursday night that you seldom see: the prima ballerina, after a gruelling section as the coolly seductive Odile, messed up her footing slightly at the end of the sequence. The orchestra had just taken a pause, and you could hear her quite clearly curse “Sh…” under her breath. I don’t know what swear word that might have been the start of in Russian, or if it was a frustrated exhalation of breath. But it made her visibly more determined to nail the uncountable fouettés that followed, ending with a self-satisfied smile. It speaks all the more to Bondareva’s appeal that her redemption made the crowd—as sparse as it was—applaud with the volume of a sold-out B.C. Place Stadium.