Review: Swan Lake (Joffrey Ballet Chicago)

October 23, 2014
Chicago Theater Beat
Catey Sullivan

Swan Lake

Review by Catey Sullivan

Sumptuous, unexpected and breathtaking, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s Swan Lake is a sublimely executed and unexpected interpretation of the classic ballet. In Christopher Wheeldon’s telling of the tragic romance, the fairy-tale aspects of the piece merge with the impressionistic aesthetic of Degas and Toulouse-Latrec. The result is imbued with the magic of masterpiece paintings come to life, a kinetic banquet of color and movement, the latter defined by a corps with the strength of steel and the winged lightness of fluttering feathers.

 Cheryl Mann)Wheeldon’s opening scene is a complete departure from the traditional Swan Lake. Rather than dropping his audience into an enchanted world reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale, he begins in a ballet studio where dancers are stretching and warming up for rehearsal. Within moments, the stage takes on an eerie, gossamer-delicate familiarity. There’s a sense of déjà vu to the opening scene, a sense that quickly gives way to recognition as the Joffrey dancers create a living replica of Degas’ famous paintings of ballet dancers. The result is lovely and startling, the brushstrokes of iconic artwork come to life.

Crafting a ballet-within-a-ballet, Swan Lake follows a company rehearsing a production of the ballet. Within the studio on stage (dominated by a massive, gilt-framed mirror), elements of fantasy come swirling in like clouds of sparkling pixie dust. This rehearsal is enchanted

With a sonic backdrop of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous, haunting Swan Lakescore (lushly realized by a full orchestra under the baton of conductor Scott Speck) , the Joffrey spins into the mesmerizing narrative. The story is simple enough: Prince Siegfried – here seen as the principal male dancer in a ballet company performing Swan Lake – falls in love with the ethereal Odette, the innocent, white swan queen. Trouble threatens, as Odette falls under the Manchurian Candidate-like mind control of the evil sorcerer – here played as a menacing patron of the ballet. Thanks to the malevolent hocus-pocus of the patron, Odette transforms into the black swan Odile, whose sexually-charged seduction of Siegfried has the terrible beauty of a destroyer.

Wheeldon merges the worlds of reality and fantasy into a seamless whole. The ‘real’ world of the ballet studio and, later, an opulent masked ball into a dreamworld dominated by a silvery gray, rippling lake where a corps of white swans flicker and dance. At the ball, a raucously jubilant parade of dancers take center stage: Can Can dancers kick up their heels and swirl their intricate petticoats with sensual abandon, Russian dancers twirl with dazzling zeal, Spanish dancers virtually flame with passion. Ultimately, the fete melts into the lake which fades eventually away into the ballet studio. Throughout, Wheeldon’s intricate, intensely demanding choreography define a world where fantasy bleeds into reality, blurring the lines between the two. 

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The principal and featured dancers in the piece vary depending on which performance you catch, but it’s safe to assert that the technical brilliance and artistic expression of the Joffrey is breathtaking no matter who happens to be dancing the solos on any given night.

At the performance I attended, April Daly and Miguel Angel Blanco danced as Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried, both performers achingly beautiful with their long, graceful lines, soaring leaps and precise technique. At the party scene, Erica Lynette EdwardsElizabeth HansenCaitlin MeighanJacqueline Moscicke and Amber Neumann light up the stage with a fiery can-can extravaganza. Anais BuenoCara Marie GaryYoshihisa Arai, and Rory Hohenstein are flawlessly bird-like in the iconic pas de quatre while Fabrice Calmels’ predatory, statuesque Patron infuses the stage with menace and mystery.

The production values are gloriously atmospheric. Jean-Marc Puissant’s costumes are intricate, character-defining interpretations of gloriously graceful birds and lavishly attired Victorian ladies and gentlemen. Adrianne Lobel’s set design uses fire and water imagery to create stage pictures of primal beauty. And Natasha Katz’s lighting bathes the stage with the dark/light nuance of a masterpiece oil painting.

In all, the Joffrey’s Swan Lake is a production to bask and luxuriate in. It doesn’t matter whether you know first position from an arabesque. It’s evocative, breathtaking and all-encompassing.

   Rating: ★★★★