Save Tchaikovsky’s brilliant original score there was little choreographer Mario Radacovsky’s psychological ballet Black Swan White Swan (retitled Black & White: Swan Lake for 2017) had in common with traditional productions of Swan Lake. No feather-adorned tutus, no clack of pointe shoes hitting the stage floor and no love story of prince and a beautiful swan that transcends death. His contemporary version of the Marius Petipa classic instead had its dancers in modern-day costume, often barefoot, and told the story of a self-absorbed man who, faced with his own mortality, sought refuge in romantic relationships with two very different women only to be tormented by feelings of guilt and betrayal over his infidelities with them.
The world premiere of the black-and-white themed two-act ballet by Grand Rapids Ballet (GRB) at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre began with a darkened stage on which the moving image of the surface of a shimmering lake was projected. The lake’s waters gradually became more turbulent as apparition-like circles of white light rose from its depths.
The mesmerizing scene then shifted to two others that served as setup for the ballet’s storyline and where we were introduced to its main characters.
In the first, a brief encounter between Nicholas Schultz as Siegfried and Laura McQueen Schultz as the White Swan (she looking more like a secretary than a swan) left the impression that Siegfried was in poor health as he collapsed to the floor (repeating the gesture at intervals throughout the first act) and that whatever ailed him, as well as his inner demons, were being manifested in the form of the sorcerer, Von Rothbart. Dancer Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida was riveting in his portrayal of the clingy, jealous and sinister Von Rothbart who seemed to have an equal measure of aggression and desire for Siegfried. His dancing was a potent blend of skill and power.
The second found Siegfried at a dance party where he encountered Black Swan, Dawnell Dryja. Radacovsky’s contemporary dance choreography for the scene had its five couples rocking back and forth in each other’s arms in a slow dance then picking up the pace to a comedic level while the Black Swan fawned over a now-melancholy Siegfried while Von Rothbart inserted himself between the pair, grabbing at Siegfried or climbing onto his back.
Apart from the ballet’s leads, GRB’s dancers appeared at times uneasy in Radacovsky’s gesture-laden contemporary movement language; their dancing lacked energy and crispness.
Toward the end of the first act however, the ballet and the dancers’ performances seemed to come into their own thanks to a striking dreamlike scene where a corps of fourteen swans, barefoot and in white leotards, performed choreography that blended references to Petipa’s production with twisty, off-balance movement. The swans each danced in individual spotlights atop the shimmering lake projection that harked back to the ballet’s beginning and brought home the notion that the swans were in fact the apparition-like lights that rose from the lake’s depths. Backed by a wall of mirrored panels that multiplied the number of Swans, Siegfried and Von Rothbart slowly stalked each other as the swans danced, creating a marvelous juxtaposition of growing tension and animated beauty.
A lightning-quick dance of the four cygnets and a playful and acrobatic pas de deux between Siegfried and the White Swan followed to end the act. McQueen Schultz as the White Swan was radiant and her performance in the pas deft.
The ballet’s second act saw Radacovsky’s choreography abandon its sometimes cutesy elements in favor of rich, emotional and more technically challenging movement. It opened with Siegfried and Von Rothbart in another battle of wills in which both dancers shone.
The ballet then climaxed in the Black Swan pas de deux where a seductive and fierce Dryja partnered by Schultz wowed the audience. Darting legs, sharp turns and daring lifts were thoroughly enthralling.
The rest of the ballet saw Siegfried seemingly defeat Von Rothbart only to have him return when the White and Black Swans met each other and exposed Siegfried’s infidelities. The ballet ended with Siegfried and Von Rothbart lying lifeless on the stage as the projected image of a swan in flight surrounded them and GRB’s swan corps slowly flapped their arms to Tchaikovsky’s stirring music.
Perhaps not a production for the ballet purist and in some ways a flawed one, Radacovsky’s ballet was nonetheless a triumph. For GRB, now in its 40thseason and the second under new artistic director and former Pacific Northwest Ballet prima ballerina, Patricia Barker, Black Swan White Swan was bold and successful step in the new direction Barker is taking the company from a little-known regional ballet company to one in the national spotlight.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Black & White: Swan Lake” returns to the stage at Peter Martin Wege Theater February 10-12, 2017. Here’s the MLive review of the premiere that was originally published in May of 2012…
Laura and Nicholas Schultz as Odette and Siegfried in the Grand Rapids Ballet’s premier of “Black Swan White Swan,” a variation of the classic ballet “Swan Lake.” (Chris Clark | Mlive.com)
By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk for MLive.com (May 11, 2012)
4 stars of 4
GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Great art is great, in part, because, whether it’s Shakespeare’s plays or Beethoven’s symphonies, it can be created new again.
Natalie Portman, in the film “Black Swan,” is set against rehearsals for “Swan Lake.” Music from Tchaikovsky’s score is part of the 2010 film, but the tale of Von Rothbart, the sorcerer, is not told in Darren Aronofsky’s film.
Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s new production of “Black & White: Swan Lake” re-imagines it yet again to cap the company’s 40th anniversary season with an artistic accomplishment of the highest order. Startling special effects surround amazing choreography in the show.
Choreographer Mario Radacovsky’s new production – beguiling, captivating, ultimately enigmatic — is not a retelling of the story of Princess Odette, the White Swan; or of Von Rothburt’s daughter, Odile, the Black Swan.
GRBC’s production, which opened last weekend in its Wege Theatre, is the story of Siegfried and his journey of discovery, both in the real world as well as in the realm of his imagination, aided, abetted by Von Rothbart.
The most important duets, in fact, are those between Siegfried and Von Rothbart, as his Mephistophelean manipulator, and by Von Rothbart, as Siegfried looking inside himself, at his alter ego, mirroring his actions, sharing his coats, engaging in frequent combat.
Radacovsky’s tale is one for the 21st century, with a dance vocabulary to match. It’s classical dance, yes, but not at all classical ballet with women on pointe. Dancers all were in dance shoes or barefoot.
Manipulations of the spine, legs spread far apart, toes pointing at 90 degree angles to the leg were some of the unfamiliar, and even uncomfortable moves Radacovsky employed, to say nothing of any number of gestures to suggest swans in motion.
Four strong dancers, with strong characterizations to match, tell the 80-minute story to most of Tchaikovsky’s much loved, pre-recorded score to “Swan Lake.”
Friday’s cast, to open its second weekend of three performances, included Nicholas Schultz as Siegfried, Kyohei Giovanni Yoshida as von Rothbart, Laura McQueen Schultz as the White Swan, Dawnell Dryja as the Black Swan.
Schultz, a fine leading man, has developed the tools to grow a character in the short space of a show as well as the strength and stamina to partner so many people so much of the time.
Yoshida, an exciting dancer always, gave Von Rothbart a cunning, commanding presence, with some spectacular moves, but riveting even when he moved with catlike stealth.
McQueen Schultz danced a graceful, White Swan, partnered often off the floor, frequently in surprising lifts and carries, suggesting her sad, remote distance.
Dryja, as the Black Swan, was a sexy, magnetic personality with a touch of femme fatale. Her solo variation had energy crackling at the tips of her fingers and toes. The trust between her and Schultz when paired together is unmatched.
Radacovsky’s party scene, establishing the normalcy of Siegfried’s world, was witty and gay with five couples dancing the world’s oldest game.
No fewer than 14 swans, matching white outfits with loose, flowing hair, were a strong corps de ballet with willowy gestures often in perfect unison.
As Shakespeare’s plays profit from modern lighting and Beethoven’s piano concertos feature modern instruments, Radacovsky’s 21st century version of a 19th century ballet benefited greatly from set and lighting design by Marek Holly and projection design by Michael Auer.
Mirrored drops reflected the action and provide subtle entrances and exits. Pools of light served as accent lighting as well as destinations marking turning points in the tale.
Best of all were breathtaking projections transforming the Wege Theatre into the semblance of a lake itself. A surprising special effect at the end sealed the deal.
Grand Rapids Ballet Company’s 40th season ends on a high note, though two more chances remain to see “Black Swan White Swan.”