Tinkering with historic, iconic works of art is tempting to creative folks. Some bring illuminating new insights to timeworn classics — Peter Brooks’ circus setting of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Peter Sellars’ “Don Giovanni” in Spanish Harlem come to mind.
Now comes James Kudelka’s production of “Swan Lake” — as iconic a work as you can get in classical ballet — being danced at the Kennedy Center this week by the National Ballet of Canada.
Mr. Kudelka was the company’s artistic director and now is resident choreographer under its new director, Karen Kain. What he has devised drains the work of its emotional power.
The choreographer’s tinkering ignores the great emotive swell of the music and gives us something drier and darker. His arsenal of dance steps seems limited. There are lots of simple leaps and an overabundance of landings in arabesque. His way with group patterns — so vital in a work in which we have come to expect a glorious sweep of swans in the second act — is busy but not enthralling. Some choreographers (Paul Taylor’s “Esplanade,” Christopher Wheeldon’s own “Swan Lake” and Mark Morris’ “L’Allegro” come to mind) have made us realize that beautiful patterns onstage can create a moral force of their own.
At times, Mr. Kudelka’s simple, athletic choreography brings new energy to the ballet, but mostly his approach is timid: beginning a sequence in the traditional way and then adding lesser choreography of his own that doesn’t stand up to the original.
One example among many is his treatment of the well-known dance for the Four Little Swans. Usually their quick, prancing steps, performed with amusing unity, continue unbroken through much of the dance. In Mr. Kudelka’s version, these are interspersed with bourres, little fluttering steps on pointe, that let the dancers catch their breath — easier to do but less exciting to watch. He also rides roughshod over the great sequence of pas de deux in what traditionally is the work’s second act.
One of the most striking things about this production is its staging, and here, too, the message is mixed. The costumes and sets are by the usually marvelous Santo Loquasto. The opening sequence is arresting: drifting clouds, castle towers, a vast barren landscape, flashes of lightning, the evil Rothbart in giant wings silhouetted against the moon. However, for unfathomable reasons, the action begins with Prince Siegfried and his courtiers cavorting in front of rough logs supporting a boat landing. There has scarcely been such an incongruous sight as the Queen Mother, attired in full court regalia, picking her way down this grungy dock to tell her son he must marry.
Scene changes are effective and expeditious (the magical change to the lakeside with its swans tells us we’re entering a fantasy land) but the sets where the action actually takes place — the lakeside and the grand ballroom — are woefully undernourished.
The Canadian company is grand enough to field several couples in the lead roles throughout its week here. Aleksandar Antonijevic as Prince Siegfried and Greta Hodgkinson as Odette-Odile danced opening night (Tuesday) and will appear again tonight and Saturday evening.
Miss Hodgkinson has an awesome balance, an expressive body and a steely technique that at times veers to the brittle. Mr. Antonijevic looks the part of a prince and performed modestly but cleanly. They are secure partners but with scant emotional rapport.
In the first act, the Prince was joined in a duet — another puzzling addition — by Nehemiah Kish, who danced the role of Benno with dispatch. The weirdest element in the drama was Rothbart, a creepy fellow whom Mr. Kudelka has insinuating himself into a couple of crucial Siegfried-Odette duets. He was played by Ryan Boorne, gotten up in flesh-colored chiffon and a band of dreadlocks.
WHAT: National Ballet of Canada in “Swan Lake”
WHEN: Tonight through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House