NYCB’s Swan Lake: A Consumer Guide

Peter Martins’ “Swan Lake” was first done in Denmark in ‘96, and flew to New York City Ballet in ‘99. It’s been danced consistently at NYCB since, even though the company also kept Balanchine’s one-act distillation in repertory as well.  The full bird is coming back to roost, settling in for a two-week run next Tuesday.

The production has the things casual viewers love about “Swan Lake”: tragic swans, noble princes, and beautiful dances, but most of all that Tchaikovsky score. And if you’ve never seen “Swan Lake,” this is actually largely “Swan Lake.” The swans are women not men, the prince isn’t Prince Charles – it’s the ballet more or less as it’s come down to us. So if you’re a curious neophyte – go.

Like most of Martins’ settings of the 19th century repertory, this is fast-paced and antiseptic. There’s lots of dancing – Martins built Act 1 like a typical abstract ballet. The paint-squiggle designs by Per Kirkeby and the relatively spare décor give the production an austere feeling, but that’s also in keeping with Martins’ bleak, love-doesn’t-conquer-all-ending.

Six couples will dance the leads during the run. If you aren’t sure whom to see read on. They’re listed in the order they perform. Just be warned: ballerinas are like perfume: what smells good to me could smell terrible to you.

Sara Mearns. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Sara Mearns, Tyler Angle (September 19, 23 mat, 30 eve). This first-night cast is the safest bet. You can count on Mearns and Angle to deliver what you’d think of when you think of “Swan Lake.” This is the part (which she got thrown at her after being in the company less than two years) that catapulted her out of the corps to principal dancer. Mearns does the role big and soulful. That’s also how she does everything, but here it’s 100% on point and she’s marvelous. I’ve seen Angle play Siegfried as vain – mistaking Odile for Odette not through sorcery but his own lack of discernment. He made it work as a shallow man jolted into awareness. Even if Angle makes different choices this time round they’ll be thoughtful.

Theresa Reichlen, Russell Janzen (September 20, 23 eve). I saw Reichlen’s debut in the part back in ‘11; she was a straightforward swan, relying on her long lines to do the talking. Like most at NYCB, she was a better black swan than a white one (Mearns is the exception). Janzen is a reticent dancer and strong partner; I haven’t seen him in a lead role of this size. It will be interesting to see how he takes on the magnitude of the part.

Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Ashley Bouder, Andrew Veyette (September 21, 24). Bouder wasn’t an orthodox choice at NYCB for the role, but she’s worth seeing. She isn’t leggy, and in a throwback to Soviet ballerinas like Ulanova, she shapes the role with a singing, heroic back. She’s also constantly evolving her approach; friends told me during another run, she had completely rethought her performance, making it even more stringently classical. Veyette is Bouder’s partner of choice, but if you’re looking for an elegant hero, that’s not his strong suit. He’s much better in contemporary work.

Sterling Hyltin, Zachary Catazaro (September 22, 29). I haven’t seen Hyltin do this, but her success in Martins’ “La Sylphide” came from a light, lyrical approach. Light and lyrical isn’t how one thinks of Odette or Odile, but then again I didn’t foresee her excellent Sylph either. Catazaro has described Siegfried as a dream role, so he’s most likely jonesing for this debut.

Megan Fairchild, Gonzalo Garcia (September 26, 30 mat). Fairchild is now one of the senior ballerinas in the company, but this is a role she hasn’t done yet. This is probably because, like Bouder, she doesn’t have the endless legs one thinks of as typical for the role. Like Hyltin, Fairchild has only improved with age, and she’s ready to shape the part in her own image. Before he came to New York, Garcia was one of the leading men at San Francisco Ballet, and this is how he would have been cast there (if not here). He can get flustered in pyrotechnical roles, but Siegfried is in his wheelhouse.

Sterling Hyltin. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Tiler Peck, Chase Finlay (September 27, October 1). This pair is also making its debut and I’d put money on them as well. Peck had a solid success in another of Mr. B’s glosses on “Swan Lake,” “Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.” That’s a good lead-up to the original part, and it’s a safe bet Peck will have no technical issues with the role. Infrequently, Peck has equated being a ballerina with doing everything accent down or with too much rubato and it resulted in a heavy performance. More often, she’s been astonishing, with coloring and emotional shadows you didn’t expect from someone who started out as a whiz-bang virtuoso. Finlay is the most to-the-manner-born prince NYCB has, so much so that it’s a surprise he hasn’t already done the part. The only question will be how they look together.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

Swan Lake” at New York City Ballet runs September 19-October 1
Lincoln Center, New York, NY

Cover: Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen. Photo © Paul Kolnik.

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