Monday, August 1, 2022

Karen Kain’s New Version of Swan Lake Fails to Fly

Harrison James and Jurgita Dronina in Swan Lake. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

As far as highly anticipated world premieres go, Karen Kain’s Swan Lake had an extraordinary amount of buildup, making it – from a box office perspective alone – a hit before it even opened. Originally scheduled for 2020, and delayed two years because of the pandemic, the $3.5-million production, a presentation of the National Ballet of Canada, sold out its two-week run in advance of its debut at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre on June 10. This is unprecedented for any ballet outside The Nutcracker, let alone one whose merits had yet to be assessed. At the end of the day, those merits were found to be wanting, making this Swan Lake, after all the hype, a total letdown.

What was wrong with it? In brief, everything.

Save for the fragments of choreography deliberately lifted from Erik Bruhn’s 1967 version of Swan Lake which she herself danced and here wanted to pay homage to, Kain’s rendition was illogical, unmusical, overdesigned and choreographically irregular. A patchwork of contrasting styles and sensibilities, it lacked cohesion and a defined sense of dramatic purpose. After watching it multiple times over the course of its lengthy run, my conclusion is that it needed a dramaturge to give it a narrative shape and direction and a discerning editor to trim the fat. And there’s a lot of fat, a lot of what feels like a waste of money and resources. As it stands, it’s a lame duck of a ballet whose legacy will surely be that, yes, it filled the company’s coffers, but at the cost of artistic integrity.

Opening night, marred by colliding dancers and an orchestra that sounded like it needed at least one more run-through to give justice to Tchaikovsky’s melodious and dramatically complex score, was so slipshod it felt like a very nervous first dress rehearsal. Visually, the production felt wayward, contributing to the sense that somewhere along the line, the plot was sacrificed on the altar of the new, not to mention that Kain felt the need to create some kind of splashy effect at the expense of elegance and good taste. In Gabriela Týlešová’s dark and stormy set design (moodily lit by Bonnie Beecher) contained no lake, for instance. The accent was on the evil Rothbart character, not the white swans whose ethereal beauty radiated at the centre of what felt at times like a black hole that wanted to suck the energy out of the original iconography established in the prototypical Swan Lake created by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa in Russia in 1895. Rothbart’s black wings (who knew he was a bird?) dominated, becoming an integral part of the elaborate curtain design. Týlešová also did the costumes, and when not experimenting with feathers (inexplicably putting them on characters who have nothing to do with swans), she indulged in images of maxi-sized roses – a floral motif much more associated with Sleeping Beauty than Swan Lake smothering both sets and costumes with them. Ballet experts sitting in the audience noticeably cringed. By the next day, word of mouth had spread like wildfire though the balletomane community – what a disaster. And yet the people kept on pouring in, either oblivious to the obvious flaws or because they were genuinely eager to see James Kudelka’s contentious (some would say misogynistic) version of Swan Lake, which the National Ballet of Canada has been performing since 1999, replaced with something they could like better, given that it was sanctioned by a dance artist who, in the eyes of the public, could do no wrong.

Kain most certainly was the main draw, a Canadian dance icon who is one of only a few Canadian performing artists to become a household name. Her past medal-winning performances for her country, her numerous TV and documentary film appearances, and, since becoming artistic director in 2005, her proven ability to lead the National Ballet out of financial straits and back on track as the country’s predominant classical dance company, have endeared her to the public ever since she, a native of Hamilton, Ontario, first joined the National back in 1969. Her big break, not coincidentally, was Swan Lake, whose lead role she danced for the first time in 1971. She was reportedly so spectacular that then artistic director Celia Franca immediately promoted her to principal dancer, a position she held until hanging up her pointe shoes with much fanfare in 1997. Today, at 71, Kain’s reaching the end of the road. Canadians are justifiably proud of her achievements. They want to celebrate her, even to the extent of overlooking a work that falls short of her own impeccable standards.

Jurgita Dronina (centre), Harrison James and the company of the National Ballet of Canada in Swan Lake. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

A celebrated dance interpreter as opposed to creator, Kain did not choreograph the work, however, which allowed her to deflect some of the blame. To quote from the program, Kain “directed and staged” her Swan Lake, delegating most of the choreographic duties to others in the company, some with established choreographic experience, some not. Chief among them were company choreographic associate Robert Binet – better known for original contemporary works set to electronica – and associate artistic director Christopher Stowell, who has since left the National to return to his native U.S. Newly appointed artistic director Hope Muir also contributed to process, to share information gleaned from behind the scenes, when in the days leading up to the world premiere it was clear to everyone watching from the wings that the production was aswirl in chaos – a true case of too many cooks in the choreographic kitchen.

Binet wanted to contemporize the 19th-century classic, which he did by adding same-sex relationships to the flouncy ensemble dances he created to fill (ad nauseum) the first act, and determining that the Swan Queen, a woman trapped in a bird’s body by the wicked Rothbart character, should here be more flesh than fowl – an idea that (excuse the pun) just didn’t hold water. Individual ballerinas, fearing that their own reputations would suffer if they danced what, even to them, was nonsensical, went rogue, insisting that they be allowed to change parts of the choreography created by Binet and Stowell for the all-important dual lead role of Odette/Odile. Bruhn’s choreography for the solos and variations was left intact. As a result, there were about as many versions of this Swan Lake as there were dancers at the forefront – six in total: Jurgita Dronina, Svetlana Lunkina and Heather Ogden during the first week of the run, and guest artist Maria Kotchekova followed by company dancers Tina Pereira and Genevieve Penn Nabity, both making their Swan Queen debuts, during the second week ending on June 26. Their respective male partners were Harrison James, Brendan Saye and Ben Rudisin in the first week of the run, followed by Siphe November, Naoya Ebe and Christopher Gerty in the second. With each performance, the couples gained in fluency, going a long way in articulating the nuances of Bruhn’s choreography in particular, and, in many instances, giving this Swan Lake a reason to be seen and heard.

And yet, like the ballerinas, the men also didn’t have an easy time of it. As opposed to Bruhn’s version, where the princely role of Siegfried is endowed with psychological depth and magnetism, in Kain’s he is dramatically limp and emotionally flat, almost inconsequential to making sense of the story. The feeling that no one on the artistic team really cared much about him became markedly clear at the end when Siegfried, shrinking from a punch-throwing Rothbart, suddenly dropped to the stage, presumably dead, but without the audience’s knowing why or how he died. Not even repeated viewings could help to ascertain what really was going on with him. Why was this a problem? Because it completely diluted the tragedy. He dies and so what? There’s no empathy, no sense of a love or a life lost. You feel nothing for him, or even Odette for that matter, and that was a sure sign that this ballet was a dud. It committed the cardinal sin of leaving you feeling bored and dissatisfied.  

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she is a two-time recipient (2020 and 2014) of Canada’s Nathan Cohen Prize for outstanding critical writing. In 2017, she joined York University as Editor of the award-winning The York University Magazine where she is also the publication’s principal writer.


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