Review: Semperoper offers a fresh, fast and fascinating Swan Lake

Swan Lake was presented by Semperoper Ballett. Photo: Ian Whalen

Choreographers love to turn Swan Lake on its feathered ear with updated, sometimes subversive takes. But Aaron Watkin and the Semperoper Ballett Dresden have completely refreshed this most classic of classical ballets not by modernizing, but by digging up its ancient source, buried in the mists of Slavic folklore.

Dramatically, the most striking change is the reintroduction of the heroine’s complicated backstory, described through pantomime in Act 1. In this ur-version, the enchantment that turns Odette into a swan by day involves not simply the wicked sorcerer Rothbart, but Odette’s kindly grandmother, who is not too shabby with the spellcasting herself. (Granny returns at the ballet’s end to save the day, sort of.)

But it’s the sheer expressive dazzle of Watkin’s choreography that makes this production so fresh. It’s fast, complex, richly layered and gloriously musical. While many choreographers like the corps to all be doing the same thing, Watkin likes to break his corps up into spiralling micro groups, each dancing to the phrasing of a different line in Tchaikovsky’s score. Visually, it’s as fantastically textured as watching an orchestra play.

Watkin’s focus is less on supernatural unity than human individuality. The work is full of little moments, like when a party guest recoils from one of Rothbart’s preening black swans, or when the white swans are clustered together in little circles following Prince Siegfried’s inadvertent betrayal, a frightened flock whispering to each other: “Did you hear? Isn’t it awful?” Odette’s Act 1 entrance is a delightfully magical piece of stagecraft (I won’t spoil the surprise, but let’s just say she doesn’t simply pas de bourrée in, flapping her arms.)

At the Thursday premiere of the company’s three-night NAC run, the majestic Sangeun Lee danced the double Odette-Odile role. Lee is nearly six feet tall and she uses all that Modigliani length to extraordinary effect: languid and quivering as Odette, cobra-like as Odile. With his beautiful lines, carriage, and chiselled cheekbones, Dmitry Semionov — another unusually tall dancer — captures Siegfried’s princely hauteur as well as his youthful dreaminess. As the Prince’s pal Benno, compact Jon Vallejo showed off springing, lofty, laser cut jumps, so tidy you could frame him. Among the “international princesses” in the Act 2 ball scene, sparkling Ayaha Tsunaki stood out with her exuberant Neapolitan tarantella.

Just back from a gruelling tour of Western Canada (and a huge Sibelius festival before that),  NACO sounded a little peaked under conductor Mikhail Agrest. Intonation wasn’t impeccable, and overall the energy level wasn’t entirely convincing. But there were gorgeous, concerto-worthy solos from Jessica Linnebach in the concertmaster’s chair, as well as oboist Chip Hamann and trumpet Karen Donnelly.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.