Sunday, March 16, 2014

Feathers In their Caps: Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie in Swan Lake

Evan McKie & Svetlana Lunkina (with the National Ballet of Canada) in Swan Lake. (Photo: Aleksandar Antonijevic)

The highly anticipated debuts of principal guest artists Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie in James Kudelka's version of Swan Lake readily explains why Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts was packed to the rafters last Saturday night (March 8). McKie who self identifies as a dancer-actor is the Toronto-born principal dancer with Germany's Stuttgart Ballet who is internationally celebrated for his ability to dramatize a role, and make it matter. Last month, the 30-year-old McKie headlined the Paris Opera Ballet, a first for a Canadian ballet dancer. In April, he will be a featured performer with the New York City Ballet where doubtless his long lyrical lines, his buoyant jumps and aristocratic mien will get audiences there as excited as they have been this past week for his homecoming in Toronto. Russian trained, McKie has also performed with the Bolshoi, making him a choice partner for Lunkina, a star ballerina of the Bolshoi who made headlines last year when she announced she was quitting Russia for Canada following a series of malevolent threats made against her and her family at a time when the Bolshoi was rocked with violence, an acid attack on its artistic director, Lunkina's former partner Sergei Filin, being one. McKie's undisputed talent as a gifted dramatic dancer notwithstanding, she was the one everyone had come to watch. The house was filled with ex ballet dancers and au courant balletomanes, all eager to see the controversial Russian ballerina show her stuff. She did not disappoint.

Curiosity about Lunkina has been building since she landed, almost literally, on the doorstep of the National Ballet of Canada last January, a prima ballerina without a ballet company. National Ballet artistic director Karen Kain moved cautiously, initially inviting Lunkina to take company class, then in August offering the 34-year old dancer a season-long contract with five ballets to perform. Two of these were were original Canadian ballets whose world premieres in November, one was The Nutcracker performed at Christmastime, and another, presented just weeks ago as part of the National Ballet's ongoing Toronto spring season, Sir Frederick Ashton's A Month in the Country. But it is Swan Lake, the Tchaikovsky ballet which debuted in Lunkina's hometown of Moscow in 1895, which has been drawing the most notice. At long last, Lunkina, who with McKie again dances the ballet today (March 16), is commanding in Canada a full-length ballet worthy of her famed Russian training.

Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic
While more known for her interpretation of Giselle, Lunkina is no stranger to the dual role of Odette-Odile, having performed it several times during her 15-year career as one of the Bolshoi's prized cache of prima ballerinas. It did not matter that Kudelka's interpretation of the ballet classic would be radically different from any Swan Lake she might have danced before. The idea was that Lunkina would bring all her Bolshoi pedigree to bear upon it. She would dance Swan Lake like none before her. And, for the most part, that was what happened. On Saturday night, despite some hints of nervousness, Lunkina, abetted by her exquisitely attentive partner, took the ballet to new heights of emotional and dramatic expressiveness. With McKie, she managed to turn this curious 1999 version of Swan Lake into a tragic love story, something not even the choreographer himself has ever managed to pull off.

Kudelka's ballet is more about the anti-hero at its dark and gloomy centre, the evil-doing Rothbart (danced Saturday by the slinky first soloist Patrick Lavoie) who lures Prince Siegfried into a fetishistic world where birds, not women, are the objects of this lonely man's desires. Generally in Kudelka's version, Odette, the white swan, is an automaton, a creature under a spell pulled and pushed this way and that in service of Rothbart's twisted need to destroy the human world represented by Prince Siegfried. Odile, the black swan, is his female alter ego who crashes the party in the second act, tantalizing Siegfried to choose her above all the other princesses presented to him for marriage. When he naively acquiesces, Rothbart, that avenging angel seen in the ballet's prologue, swoops in to snatch his prey.

Love, actually, is irrelevant to the plot. The lack of love can be said to be one of the ballet's major themes. There's no love, for instance, between Siegfried and his mother, the Queen. There's no love, or anything resembling chivalry, among the Prince's courtiers who, in the first act, gleefully gang-banging a wench (the always tantalizing Tanya Howard) while ignoring her cries for help. There's no love expected to exist in Siegfried's impending marriage to one of four princesses presented to him to choose from in the second act. Each has with her an ambassador whose job it is to sell the sex appeal of the maiden in his charge. They are dynasties for sale, one each from Russia, Italy, Spain and Hungary, all vying for a chance to forge a union with power. They compete for attention, performing a thrilling series of character dances that are among the ballet's more arresting sequences of choreography. The Prince himself is bored by the spectacle, refusing to be seduced – even by the magnificence of second soloist Chelsy Meiss dancing the Russian Princess on Saturday night.

This, then, is the backdrop to a Swan Lake where death and destruction are predicted right from the start. So it is no feat that Lunkina, with McKie's solid assistance, were able to carve something resembling a quietly beating heart out of such cynicism. Their combined performances, imbued with electrifying artistry, inspired the National Ballet dancers as a whole. The ensemble dancing, among the men in act one and the women in the swan scenes, was especially energized, elegant and musical. Guest conductor Earl Stafford, the longtime musical director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, lead the National Ballet Orchestra to keep perfect time with the dancers. It was, overall, a galvanizing performance punctuated by memorable dancing.

Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic
McKie was masterful in the first act, using understated gesture and facial expression to create a portrait of the Prince that felt real rather than typically abstract. His Siegfried was not just a tacit observer of his damned destiny, but an active player who, despite making bad choices on his life's journey, had about him an air of warmth and decency, He engaged with his courtiers, especially Benno (the aerial Naoya Ebe). He gently teased his Tutor (played her by veteran come any dancer Tomas Schramek) and benignly tolerated his Fool (Robert Stephen showing good command of Kudelka's devilishly fast batterie). He was recognizable human, that is fallible. Lunkina was more obviously the otherworldly creature.

Skillfully, Lunkina endowed the ballet with tremulous emotion achieved subtly through a series of small but highly nuanced gestures which showed her to be not just a ballerina but an artist, a dancer capable of imparting depth of feeling using only the lift of an eyebrow, the taut line of a mouth. True to the choreography, in the first act, she presented Odette as a creature whose soul has been beaten down in her. She moved with cool detachment, her face barely registering emotion. Lunkina played up her whiteness, interpreting it as an absence of colour, a zombified blank. But there was inside her a human impulse pushing up against the icy exterior. It was detected when Odette extended an arm to the Prince, pushing it just past his grasp but not before pausing to register the heat of his body. Her wrist seemed barely to skim by his, igniting a spark of mutual understanding that suggested there was a mind at work inside that fluttering body, wanting recognition, even compassion. The gesture was repeated later in the ballet, just before the denouement, and it crystallized the unfulfilled longing shared by these victims of Rothbart's godless universe. It symbolized their fate as would-be lovers kept forever apart.

When Lunkina returned in the second act in the guise of Odile her transformation from white to black was startling and complete. She was an entirely different dancer: spiky, sparky, sexually intense. Her eyes darted fire. Her lips parted to show a tongue licking at the trumped up passion she was driving to boiling point in her Prince. Her party piece would be the 32-fouett├ęs which have graced the black act pas deux of Swan Lake since the pyrotechnic Pierina Legnani first inserted them into the original ballet almost 120 years ago. Lunkina looked ready to to best the prototypical Odile. She proceeded her leg whipping turns with a roar, throwing her legs out and round with dizzying speed. She could not quite sustain the effort, stopping somewhat abruptly, if not prematurely, suggesting she had given too much too soon. But no one was going to fault her. The audience went wild, shouting and clapping. Lunkina had done what they had hoped she would do: she had bedazzled.

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates.

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