Russian Ballet bringing 'Swan Lake' to Livermore
By Lou Fancher
Stack enough artistic icons on top of each other, and you may cause an avalanche.
But cultural tradition falling -- or people tumbling -- is unlikely to happen Feb. 2, when the Russian National Ballet Theatre brings the original choreography of Petipas, Lev Ivanov and Yuri Grigorovich, the grand music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the refined classicism of Russian-style ballet in "Swan Lake" to the Bankhead Theater.
The ballet company arrives steeped in a history notable for its devotion to established hierarchies, including the exceptional training and customs of ballet schools and companies dating back centuries in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Perm. But the dance company also springs forward as a bold embarkation begun when former Bolshoi principal dancer Elena Radchenko (now the company's artistic director) founded the RNBT in the late 1980s. Dancers in the former Soviet Union at that time had begun to seek new, vital opportunities for furthering their art form.
Radchenko has directed her considerable energies toward preserving the great choreographic works of Petipa -- like "La Bayadere," "The Sleeping Beauty," "Don Quixote" and others -- while continuing to challenge and produce fine dancers for the 21st century.
"We've tried to keep our performance as true to the original version as possible," said Alexander Daev, assistant artistic director and ballet master for the company. "Of course, technique has improved over the years, but the original choreography is what we perform."
RNBT is a touring company, and, like a number of other companies boasting Bolshoi/Kirov Ballet connections recently visiting the United States, "Swan Lake" is an audience favorite. In the past three years, the Bay Area has seen the Mariinsky Ballet's soulful, classic version (2012) and an updated love triangle rendition from the Australian Ballet (2014), both at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Audiences worldwide had a taste of the ballet in 2010's "Black Swan," which turned the synopsis into a psycho-swirl of betrayal and ambition in a movie starring Natalie Portman.
"Swan Lake" presents prince/man Siegfried and swan/woman Odette, who fall in love. Rothbart, an evil sorcerer, has cast a spell, turning maidens (Odette among them) into a flock of swans. Siegfried's love can break the spell, but before it does, Rothbart intercedes by introducing his deceptive, dangerous daughter Odile, disguised to resemble Odette. The young prince is fooled and declaring his devotion to Odile, he dooms Odette to eternal swanhood.
In the final act, versions differ. The ballet sometimes ends with man and bird flinging themselves suicidally into the lake -- Odette betrayed, Siegfried devastated with grief -- as in the original Petipa/Ivanov version. Other endings have the two lovers finding forgiveness and engaging in a spirited battle with Rothbart that breaks the spell, or after dying, the two lovers meet in heaven. The RNBT steers toward the happier ending with a mash-up: Siegfried realizes his error, battles Rothbart and kills the sorcerer on the rock of true love.
Of course, the real magic of Swan Lake is all about falling. The best way to judge a ballerina's true expertise is to watch not only how she ascends, but how she tombés (falls) to descend from her toes. And the true test of the classical partnering skills of a male dancer is how well he disappears, or "falls away" so the eye is always directed to his partner.
In "Swan Lake," disbelief must fall away when the same dancer performs the dual Odette/Odile role. We must be convinced that Odette's ethereal, luminescence has vanished -- replaced by Odile's convincingly wicked fouettés (the ballet's signature 32 turns performed on one leg).
Daev said U.S. audiences adore the company's fairy tale ballets and often return to see them every time they are in town. The full costumes, sets and props are used, unless the size of the stage requires "re-rigging" and adaptations.
"We've been able to make it all happen even in some spaces that are definitely a challenge," he said. "It makes us feel good that we have contributed something beautiful to the world that people have been enjoying for centuries. There are a few things that never change, and we are happy to be a part of that legacy."
Daev said the dancers are "happy people" because they spend so much of the time surrounded by audiences who give standing ovations and greet them warmly at receptions. The company doesn't have an official website, according to Daev, but many of the dancers are active on social media such as Facebook and Instagram.