“The first taste of art is spontaneously sensual, it is the discovery of an absorbing entertainment, an absorbing pleasure."
Edwin Denby, from the essay "Against meaning in Ballet" originally published in 1949; compilation published as Dance Writings and Poetry in 1998.
One always has one's personal bias in the interpretation of Odette. There are two standard approaches: Odette as a swan and Odette as a trapped woman. In the 70s, Makarova's performances fell in line with the former: an emphasis on bird-like movements of the head and arms. Plisetskaya in the 50s and 60s had a similar approach; critic Robert Garis referred to her swan-like arms as a "magic trick." Mezentseva, Anashiavilli and Lopatkina followed this approach. An examplar of the former interpretation can be found in Ulanova's recorded performance of Act 2 in the 1940s: a woman who is trapped into being a swan, but is a woman first and foremost at night. Fonteyn's performances (seen in the 60s' video with Nureyev) followed this approach, as do Pavlenko's.
Arlene Croce famously wrote (of the Bolshoi corps' "swan arms" in Swan Lake) "If it's swans you want, go to the zoo." I agree with her assessment: as beautiful as a great ballerina pretending to be a swan can be (Pavlova's "Dying Swan" comes to mind), with grace, long lines, lifts in the breastbone, supple backs, undulating arms, and all rest, the drama of Swan Lake is of a woman trapped by a magical spell into becoming a swan during the day, but a woman at night. Emphasize bird-like attributes and your noble prince now has a fowl fetish, and one wonders why the swan creature would ever want to cease being a swan creature. Instead, it must be emphasized that she aches to be a woman: Ulanova did this through a certain softening of her already soft line and her proud carriage; Fonteyn accomplished this same feat by drawing focus to the expressive power emanating from her back - when she took THE Odette pose, one saw a fantastic release of energy that amounted to a cry. (Depending on the length of leg, or illusions of it, some Odettes have a larger cry than others). With that in mind:
Evening, 3 November 2006, Chicago: Lopatkina and Korsuntsev
Act I of the Kirov's production is almost entirely composed of dancing; what mime there is occurs while the dancing is going on. During this part, I heard grumblings of "when is the ballet actually going to start," as if one goes to see ANY ballet for the plot (nearly all ballet plots, including this one, are silly and ridiculous on the surface); no, one goes to the ballet to see dancing, and it's rather silly to quibble that one is seeing "too much dancing." The pas de trois was performed well (Sunday afternoon's performance was better), but I also noted the current fashion for thinness of the Kirov women: the long legs, thin thighs, and small hips, reduces the power of the dancing. It diminishes the poetic power of turnout, if not the motion itself, and arabesques do not seem to be drawing their energy from the core of the body. Limbs then, have a tendency to look as if they have been flung here or there, instead of positioned from the strength of the lower and upper back; the sense of bodily dynamic and opposition are lost. However, these are minor quibbles, especially when one sees a corps fully invested in the dancing, something not seen at the NYCB's recent visit. Demonstrated even more fully in the later acts, the Kirov dancers BELIEVE in this ballet, believe IN ballet, and believe in the aesthetic that they are investing themselves in: this is not just their job, but a spiritual and moral quest. Thus, they can act as one, as they seem to float and swim as one in Act IV. But I'm jumping ahead of myself. The jester is the only annoying part here, and he has been roundly vilified by generations of ballet critics, so no point adding to that here. The wild clapping that he is bound to get for his high-jinks detracts from our main hero who doesn't even get to do a real variation until well into Act III.
Korsuntsev is old-fashioned in his approach - his prince is self-contained, ardent without being too emotional, heroic without mussing his hair. At the end of Act I, he hears the familiar Swan motif, and does a bit of "hmm, that's interesting" before running after it.
Act II begins, and the mechanical swans appear (notorious in this production). Finally, Odette shows up, fresh from being a swan. Lopatkina enters, and one feels that one is about to see technical perfection. Indeed, every hand, every finger, every glance, is thoroughly planned and thoroughly perfect. She poses beautifully, letting one admire her from all angles. And she is utterly swan-like, and utterly cold. She performs the swan movements with such grace that it looks like she has been a swan creature her entire life, as if von Rothbart's spell is turning her very physiology into a swan and she is developing avian bones. The pas de deux is performed ridiculously slowly - slower than Makarova even, and violin music performed that slowly starts to sound like a dirge after awhile. But there is no vulnerability, no sense of being trapped. Instead, the impression one gets is of a swan creature meeting a man, saying, "oh, he's nice enough," and deciding to show off her avian skills for a bit. In her solo, the passes can look like cries of hope and joy, renewed belief through the power of love; with Lopatkina, each passe up to the knee from fifth position was done with such an emphasis on line, and without variation in the speed that it was another attempt to show beautiful dancing, but without the motivating drama. What's Siegfried to do?
Act III: The charm of the dancing princesses was displayed better in the Sunday matinee, when Sarafanov really seemed to be flustered, and then headstrong in his refusal to choose among them. But the character dances were astounding. In the Spanish dance, the women's backbends were so eye-popping I had an immediate "I want to see those again!" Indeed, they did do them again! The castanet player down in the orchestra also did a great job. The Neapolitan dance was also delightful and light, the Hungarian czardas was wonderful, and the mazurka was poweful and energetic. I loved the costumes, the energy, and how much time was given to the performance of the national dances. As others have written, these character dances aren't really supposed to be "the real thing," but an impression of the impression that these dances leave (and in the time of the czars - Swan Lake dates to the 1870s - a chance for the audience to see other cultures in that same haze with which the West regarded Russians as Oriental exotics during the same time period).
Lopatkina's Odile had such a "guns-blazing" approach that one thought it was a different woman! (My friend initially thought just that.) Her turns, attitudes, balances, were technically superb, the 32 single fouettes perfectly timed to the music. But this approach also confused the drama - there's no way that Siegfried would believe this warm, evil seductress before him was his beloved Odette, so he must be the type who has his head turned by a woman thoroughly chasing after him. But after the cold Odette, one understood while he would prefer this different woman, Odile, to her. Korsuntsev was solid in his solo. Odile was also so certain of her win, there was no clear reaction from Lopatkina. She runs off, head lifted high, as Korsuntsev's Siegfried looks slightly confused and has an "oh no" expression that makes one think he has just learned that he's dirtied his white tights a bit. As I've stated before, Lopatkina's approach throws the drama off.
Act IV began with the white swans, now with black cygnets scattered among them, showing their mass captivity and helplessness. Here, the Kirov corps' arms moved and beat as one. Gorgeous. Odette comes out again, dancing beautifully, only to be captured by von Rothbart. Not much helplessness from our Swan Queen, though. When Siegfried shows up, there is no sense of forgiveness and redemption (neither is there much remorse from him), only a sort of, "oh, you're here again - partner me well." He does, the final confrontation arrives, Siegfried pulls von Rothbart's wing off, begins flogging him with it (this was an unneccessary bit of action - von Rothbart can flop and roll around on the floor to indicate his death well enough; he doesn't need to be beat down with his own wing by our hero), and we have the happy Soviet ending: Siegfriend gently lifts Odette up (fingertip by fingertip is removed from the stage) and we have arrived at the final ending tableau. Absolutely beautiful, but with the sense of drama misplaced. It was a performance I respected, but did not love - I don't think Lopatkina would have allowed it.