I saw the American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake at the Civic Opera House last Friday, and was left a bit cold. I am far from an expert on dance, which is one of the reasons I chose to attend the ballet instead of the Saariaho-fest on campus. Dance, like classical music, is one of those funny things where you have a little tug-of-war between rep and innovation in terms of accessibility. Is it better for someone without much familiarity with dance to see a fairly run-of-the-mill, traditionalist fairy tale ballet, or is it better for him to begin with something more daring, more avant-garde but also perhaps more accessible to the layperson? Do you start out a non-classical music fan with Bach or Beethoven, or do you start him with Reich and Bang on a Can?
I should also say that I'm not a Tchaikovsky fan by any means, though there are a number of wonderful musical moments in Swan Lake. Unfortunately, the orchestra was perfunctory at best and out-of-tune and rhythmically imprecise at worst, with some dreadful woodwind intonation and horrid little solos. Though it was conducted by the most fantastically-named conductor ever, Ormsby Wilkins.
I won't comment much on the technical performances of the dancers, since I'm not particularly equipped to do so. But as far as I could tell, they performed elegantly and eloquently, with each small gesture well-placed and fairly tight ensemble work. Nearly all of the soloists were excellent, and quite a few moments were simply breathtaking.
However, the production as a whole was almost completely without drama, overladen with conventions that not only don't connect with a contemporary audience, but also alienate the modern viewer. The elaborate staging almost always distracted from the dance, in a hyper-Romanticized 19th century style which told the story in the most literal way possible, without any room for the choreography to fill in our imaginations. This was most egregious in The Great Hall (Act III), where the series of tired dances became a foreground to an overcrowded stage. Nearly all of the "national style" dances (degrading imitations of various "ethnic" cultures) were painful to watch, with pompous, stupid costumes--the entire act felt bloated. Even if it's written into the score, like the embarrassingly simple castanets for the Spanish dancers, doesn't mean it's any good.
But as I said, there were a few beautiful sequences. In Act II, the interaction between the duo of the Prince and Odette and the set of other swan dancers, their framing device, was magical. In the duet between the lovers, there was a moment where time stopped, with each dancer frozen in a stunning pose. Unfortunately, the poignancy of simple gestures like these was disrupted by the overall narrative. I almost burst out laughing when the lovers literally bellyflopped to their deaths at the end of the ballet--who in their right mind could have choreographed this? Kevin McKenzie, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, apparently.
The real question at hand, which is one that pertains to unstaged classical music as well, is this: do we really need these conventions? When they become stilted, and the gestures that the dancers make do not resonate with an intelligent audience, then why not abandon them? The villain von Rothbart's costume looked like it came out of a B-movie--is this supposed to be scary, or dramatically appealing, when we have Avatar coming to DVD in two weeks? I'm not saying that the thrills of the ballet should come from high-budget costumes (quite the opposite), but they shouldn't look cheap. If you cannot costume a villain to be in any way menacing, then go the opposite way: abstraction. I am a huge proponent of the abandonment of realism in something like Swan Lake, because it liberates the audience's vision of what is actually conveyed in the music. If we get rid of the white tutus and tacky rocky grotto (why, oh why, do those rocky grottoes always look exactly the same?), even if they were what Tchaikovsky originally wanted, we can feel the music better, and better appreciate the dance as well. Don't clutter the stage! Free it so that we can admire the dancer's bodies, rather than their cliched roles as sea-monster villains or homosocial hunters.