The Bird We Saw, The Prince We Know

by Leigh Witchel

Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay’s debuts in “Swan Lake” had fewer revelations than confirmations. Peck is more than up to the challenges of the role. Check. Finlay is a natural prince. Check. The production isn’t great. Check. Both dancers were worth watching anyway. Check.

Peck’s a whiz-bang technician and she was on, so the tick marks on her “Swan Lake” checklist were neatly achieved. Most of the bravura is in the Black Swan pas de deux, and Peck didn’t miss a beat. She nailed all her balances, snapped off double attitude turns in her variation and whirred through her manège. She’s a gyroscope, so the fouettés were all in a day’s work: doubles in the first half, singles to follow and no spin-out.  Odile’s lethal virtuosity isn’t a challenge for Peck; it’s her jam.

None of the evening’s tricks gave her any trouble, so could she use her technique to create a character? That was easier as Odile. Peck’s conception was straightforward: a capable, gleeful villainess. The most amusing echo was her Natalie Portman eyeliner, but with the ashy pallor in Peck’s blush and her fatal determination to destroy Siegfried, it was Nina Sayers meets Rosa Klebb.

Odette was harder for her to color in. Peck found moments in her variation to slow down and linger, but she still had to keep up with Andrew Litton’s roadrunner tempo. The entrechat-passés were at a breakneck pace that had Peck stamping downwards.

At the lake, the women of the corps were a harried flock of New York swans: individuals rather than a single organism, always flapping and running, always in a hurry. The dance for the four little swans felt like a 100-yard dash.

Almost all of the swan queens at New York City Ballet are better at the court than the lakeside. It’s not them: it’s the staging. Martins is an allegro choreographer; his heart has never been in the adagios. This “Swan Lake” is treated as an abstract allegro ballet from the packed group dances in the first scene, through the sped-up pas de deux at the lake. Yes, some ballerinas can drag the tempos out as if they were sleepwalking, but “Swan Lake” is still sumptuous music, not a race. You lose something if you play it as if you were trying catch a bus.

Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay in “Swan Lake.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Given the speed she had to perform at, Peck’s initial characterization of Odette was external: a flappy lakeside scene with quick head movements and hands in constant motion – the bird Peck figured was required of her. Her wristy arms functioned as an indication of Odette’s emotional state: pushing away as if to say “come no closer.”

In contrast, with his almost airbrushed looks and aerodynamic golden hair, princely is the default setting for Finlay. But it’s not just the look; it’s how he moves: his upright stance and open chest. Like Peck, and almost all ballet dancers, at the outset the characterization was external: how he looked rather than what he felt. But by the end of the first scene Finlay was laying the groundwork for the Prince’s melancholy and loneliness. As his retinue skipped offstage at the end of the first scene, he followed them, racing in a wide a circle but realizing it was not his lot to join them. When he danced at the lake after, circling into arabesques with a long arm above, he showed how to make even fast tempos big and lush.

Finlay and Peck worked well together; you could see them in sympathy from the outset: Finlay trying to motion her out of the way so he could kill Von Rotbart; Peck coming to him and slowing down into a penchée to still his bow.

Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay in “Swan Lake.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

His partnering was invisible yet Peck was always supported. There’s a story of Balanchine telling a dancer his partnering should be like an avocado. On pondering the culinary oracle, the dancer decided that Balanchine meant something that was never in the foreground, but always present. Finlay was that perfect avocado – unobtrusive, nearly imperceptible, and yet essential.

His lakeside variation to the waltz of the big swans wasn’t as packed as most Martins choreography, and that looked much better on him. Contrast this to Anthony Huxley, who is short, fast and incisive. The direction changes and dense phrasing of the pas de quatre variation gave him no trouble.  That same part put Finlay out of commission.

Even in this performance, Troy Schumacher made it through his first appearances as the jester, but Spartak Hoxha had to go in for him during the second half.

After intermission, the tempos were less hectic, and in the divertissments there were some notable performances in unexpected spots. Jenelle Manzi has been in the corps a decade, but the way she performed in Martins’ nicely-stitched divertissement as the last princess to enter and the first to dance was luminous. She has an open, glowing presence like Carla Körbes, and the broad calmness with which she presented herself on pointe to Siegfried, and then led the others, stated that even among a sextet, this one was special.

Alec Knight has only been in the full company a year, so leading the Hungarian divertissement was an opportunity for him and he was loaded for bear.  He intended to be seen and was taking risks to make it happen; sliding across the stage and slamming to his knee with presence and hunger.

After the deception had been revealed at the end of the court scene, Martins gave Siegfried room to ramp up for the denouement and Finlay used it. Even with the pessimistic love-doesn’t-conquer-all ending Martins opts for, he still paces his final scene well. The lovers reconcile to a melancholy, pressurized section pilfered from a deleted pas de six (Martins uses the rest for his pas de quatre). It gave the lovers what they needed. Peck’s characterization of Odette seeped from the surface right down to her bones as she grabbed Finlay’s hand and clutched it to her. He swore his love futilely; she knew already the war was lost but wanted that last moment by his side.

Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay in “Swan Lake.” Photo © Paul Kolnik.

Martins kept building up the pressure as Tchaikovsky’s storm raged. Even the introduction of black swans into the white flock felt cosmic as Siegfried and Odette stood for the final time against Von Rotbart. The closing moments (boy defeats sorcerer but doesn’t get the girl) have always felt sour, but like the best couples before them, Peck and Finlay made it work.

So, debuts for both Finlay and Peck that were eminently worth seeing – but you knew what you were getting before you got there – and got it you did. Now that Peck’s gotten that first show out of the way, the excitement will be watching her take wing in the part. Finlay’s obvious success in the role raises questions. His Siegfried is indeed a confirmation – that his real repertory isn’t at NYCB. It’s ballet’s princes and heroes: Siegfried, Désiré, Albrecht.

Those roles aren’t just more congenial, but safer. Finlay’s not a pyrotechnician; he’s a strong dancer and got through his variation in the Black Swan pas with no trouble, but that’s the edge of his comfort zone. The way Martins constantly pushes for harder, crazier phrases taxed and injured him. The dude is a prince – in a company that doesn’t really need them.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Swan Lake” – New York City Ballet
Lincoln Center, New York, NY
September 27, 2017

Cover: Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay in “Swan Lake.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet‘s fall season runs through October 15.

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