- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

PHILADELPHIA - Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is probably the most sought after dance maker in the world today, with a string of successful ballets behind him. So expectations were high for his new full-length “Swan Lake,” commissioned by the Pennsylvania Ballet, which had its world premiere Friday evening at Philadelphia’s grand Academy of Music.

What he has created is both traditional and radically different. He retains the best known passages in this most famous of ballets, but the rest is his own.

All the elements that make Mr. Wheeldon’s work so riveting are here — an astounding sense of theater and a magical touch with movement, most notably in his fresh, striking designs for the corps of swans.

But his concept is sure to be controversial. The action takes place within a single set: the bare outlines of a large dance studio, behind which lies not a traditional lake but a large sea. The room diminishes the universe of the ballet and has the effect of making the story earthbound instead of letting it soar and release the imagination.

The ballet begins with a wonderful stroke. After the full orchestra plays Tchaikovsky’s stirring overture, the curtain goes up and a piano is heard as women dressed in knee-length tutus enter and pause, caught as they stretch or arrange their hair, their stillness creating a mood and atmosphere reminiscent of Degas’ paintings. It is an arresting moment.

The first scene takes place in this studio, as a dress rehearsal for “Swan Lake.” The dancers are in practice clothes. The Queen Mother enters to make the critical point that her son, Prince Siegfried, must think of marrying. She arrives at the rehearsal and a seamstress puts a crown and trailing veil on her.

Mr. Wheeldon’s intent is clear: to make a 21st century “Swan Lake” for a new audience that may not care for a lot of rigamarole about courts and queens. So, instead, we have young people in a studio rehearsing, looking natural, and dancing his vibrant new choreography, which mixes in quite seamlessly with the traditional first act pas de trois for a man and two women.

From here, the ballet leaves the world of the studio behind (but not, alas, its set) and journeys into Siegfried’s imagination. The dancer who plays Siegfried encounters Odette, the maiden cast under a spell by the evil Von Rothbart — in this version more evil than most and played by a bald man in a top hat. Traditionally, in the beautiful pas de deux between the two lovers, they are alone onstage, but Mr. Wheeldon, using only 18 swans, creates a chorale-like accompaniment for them that enlarges the profound love scene, occasionally overpowering it.

Making changes to a work that has been altered over the years as much as “Swan Lake” is definitely valid as long as its essence remains, but there are bound to be disagreements about the scene following intermission.

The scene in which Siegfried betrays his love for Odette by swearing allegiance to her look-alike Odile has been set by Mr. Wheeldon in a glamorous turn-of-the-century nightclub instead of at Siegfried’s court. Fair enough, to this viewer. But this scene and its sophisticated, brittle goings-on — a Russian dancer who does a stylish striptease, three Spanish dancers and some cancan dancers — are a far cry from the heartfelt scene that preceded it before the intermission.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Siegfried; by not introducing Siegfried and Odile at the beginning of this act the importance of the story line is diminished.

When the famous Black Swan Pas de Deux follows, it takes place in the now-empty nightclub, observed only by Von Rothbart. The dancing is so brilliant, so presentational, that it seems to call out for a suitably grand audience to be onstage, witnessing it.

Mr. Wheeldon’s talents come to the fore again in the vivid formations of the last act. The windows and doors of the set are finally gone (although the side doors remain in place) and a forbidding dark sea looms at the back of the stage. As the swans mourn the betrayal of their Swan Queen and Von Rothbart attempts to exact his revenge, the mood is not elegiac but bracing. The extended variations for the massed swans give an elan to a scene that ends with the death of Von Rothbart and departure of Odette.

The ballet ends with a return to the Degas-like classroom and a dancer, his inner journey finished, standing alone onstage.

The odd set was the work of Adrianne Lobel, who created the inspired series of panels for Mark Morris’ “L’Allegro”; Jean-Marc Puissant designed the appropriate costumes; and Natasha Katz’s lighting was effective, especially in the opening Degas scenes.

Roy Kaiser, director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, took an admirably bold step with this commission for his 40-member company — small in size for such an ambitious work.

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