– On Saturday I flew down to Winston-Salem, where Carolina Ballet was giving three performances of Robert Weiss’ Swan Lake (it was premiered last season in Raleigh, but I was too busy covering Broadway openings to come see it).
The standard four-act version of Swan Lake, choreographed in 1895 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, is too large in scale to be performed by medium-smallish companies. Weiss had long taken for granted that it was beyond the reach of Carolina Ballet, which employs only thirty-two dancers, until he ran across a children’s-book version of Swan Lake by the Viennese author-illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger in which the story of the ballet is turned into a fairy tale. Reading the book showed him how Swan Lake could be reconceived on an intimate, organically smaller scale. Zwerger gave him permission to use her Schwanensee as the basis for his production, and now Carolina Ballet has its very own two-act Swan Lake, one with just eight swan maidens instead of the usual twenty-four.
Weiss’ Swan Lake is forty-five minutes shorter than the Petipa-Ivanov version and has been altered in a variety of other ways, some small and some significant (among other things, it has a happy ending, Tchaikovsky’s original intention). Above all, it’s been completely rechoreographed in the fast-moving manner of Weiss’ other full-evening story ballets. As I explained a couple of years ago in a Washington Post review of his dance version of Carmen:
If you hadn’t seen any full-length ballets other than, say, “Giselle,” you probably wouldn’t notice anything unusual about it, except that there aren’t any boring parts–and that’s the point.
Having squirmed through far too many three-act kitschfests such as Ben Stevenson’s “Dracula” (which the Houston Ballet inflicted on innocent Washingtonians earlier this month), I’ve lost patience with choreographers who cram the stage with high-priced scenery and costumes, then forget to add steps and serve hot. The emphasis in their faux-romantic pseudo-ballets is placed squarely on pantomime and pageantry, while the dancing, such as it is, must fend for itself. The results invariably end up looking static, the opposite of what a good ballet should be.
Weiss has chosen a different model for “Carmen,” as well as the similarly conceived, equally successful “Romeo and Juliet” that Carolina Ballet premiered last year. Both ballets are choreographed in the manner of Balanchine’s 1962 adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which the plot is propelled, and the characters defined, through movement rather than mime. “I don’t like seeing a lot of people standing around on stage doing nothing,” Weiss says. Instead, he builds each scene around a carefully organized dance sequence, just as Balanchine did in his great Shakespeare ballet….He uses the standard steps and combinations of neoclassical ballet, but always to make specific narrative points.
As a result, Weiss’ Swan Lake, though related to the standard Petipa-Ivanov version, doesn’t feel anything like a slimmed-down alternative. It’s different not only in scale but also in shape and tone, and to my mind is wholly successful on its own terms. I saw it twice and couldn’t have been more impressed. Aside from the obvious artistic merits of Weiss’ version, it strikes me that he’s found a solution to the Swan Lake problem that other regional companies with similarly limited resources would do well to embrace.