National Ballet of China’s Swan Lake delivers pretty perfection

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A National Ballet of China production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday, February 27. Continues until March 2

Watching the National Ballet of China’s tutu’d swans in tight rows is about as close as you are going to get to pure, polished perfection.

Column upon column of white-clad women, all of identical height and sinuous build, appear on-stage, sometimes tiptoeing in exact unison, other times frozen with graceful arms outstretched seemingly for hours—like unwound music-box ballerinas.

This is what you come to the National Ballet of China to see: exquisite technical precision and regimented conformity in an extremely traditional rendition of the famous ballet. Set to the melodious, well-known score by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, it follows Prince Siegfried as he falls for a princess who’s been turned into a swan by a sorcerer.

Sometimes that perfection can feel cold, but not, thankfully, in the performance of Odette and her evil twin, Odile, on opening night. The huge troupe will be switching up the casting, so here’s hoping you catch a prima as good as the willowy Wang Qimin (who also appears on Saturday [March 1]). She is all fragile beauty as the white swan, fluttering and trembling at the sight of Siegfried’s crossbow, sorrow throbbing through her ever-undulating arms to her fingertips. Everything feels light as air, from her frothy fouetté turns to her ultra-controlled arabesques. Wang is the fetishized ballerina to the max—although not in the admittedly more fun, sensual way we saw when the Mikhailovsky Classical Ballet and Opera came here last June. Wang is delicate and passive, but she can switch gears as the “black swan”, revving up her pas de deux with Siegfried with a more menacing, aggressive charm.

Crowds will also eat up the evil magician Von Rothbart (Cui Kai), who reaches cartoonlike heights of villainy, flapping around in his giant, shiny-black cape.

As for Siegfried, it’s always hard to live up to the transfixing female star, and this rendition was no different. Li Jun, of course, had impeccable technical chops, pulling off killer combinations, rising effortlessly en relevé, and circling the stage in unwavering jetés. But in the more emotional scenes—when refusing his mother’s insistence on marriage or desperate after finding out he’s been duped by Odile—he looked more lost than tormented. And chemistry with Wang? Not so much. Even the death scene, with a black fabric wave taking over the couple, seemed rushed and deprived of melodrama.

Still, with its lush, moonlit sets by Peter Farmer and exquisite glittering costumes by Galina Solovyeva, this is a production that delivers. Though they seemed reserved through the first act (perhaps matching the reserve of the corps), the audience members had been fully drawn into the magic by the end: when Siegfried and Odette appeared, joined at last in their afterlife, the crowd jumped to its feet for several ovations. The Swan, done well, always gets 'em in the end.

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