Black and White
It’s impossible to view new productions of Swan Lake in isolation, such is the ballet’s historical prevalence. Jean-Christophe Maillot is the latest in a long line of choreographers to recast the dark tale through a specific lens in an effort to distinguish his version from the many that have come before it, employing a sensual filter that tinges the mood with a discernible layer of eroticism. This approach imbues LAC with a powerful sense of corporeality, but the piece is not without its faults – namely an ill-defined plot and misdirected characterisations.
The three-act ballet kicks off with a chic and artfully shot silent film depicting the prince and pre-transformation White Swan as childhood friends. The Von Rothbart figure – recast as a dramatic glamazon dubbed Her Majesty of the Night (Maude Sabourin) – swoops in to capture the girl, and the scene fast-forwards to a present in which the grown-up prince (Stephan Bourgond) continues to lament her disappearance amid pressure from his parents to marry.
From here, a parade of female suitors vie for the prince’s attention, a rousing scene that recalls the procession of kings in The Prince of the Pagodas in its vigour. The five potential wives are buttressed by a colourful flock of the prince’s friends, and together they offer a commendably energetic performance flecked with sharp twists and gutsy dives. Their formations border on sloppy at times, but there’s a good deal of chemistry in the various groupings, and the set is sleek and the costuming rich.
The performance starts to lose its focus when Her Majesty of the Night plunges in with two BDSM-styled archangels plus her daughter, the Black Swan (April Ball), who attempts to woo the prince. Dark and predatory, the Black Swan is understood to be a sexual foil to her virginal white counterpart, but Ball is more focused than fierce, her deportment a little too passive for the prurient role. Coupled with the orgiastic rapport between her mother and her leather-clad companions, the Black Swan’s wanton pursuit of the prince is plenty demonstrative of the sexual overtones the ballet exudes, but Malliot chooses to ratchet up the scandal further by introducing an incest plotline for reasons unclear. The move feels cheap and needlessly complicated, and dampens an otherwise focused first act.
LAC's best moments occur in its second act, when the prince encounters the White Swan (Anja Behrend) in the forest and observes her transformation from timorous bird to diaphanous woman. Instead of romanticising her animalistic qualities, the movement vocabulary underscores the brutality of them: Behrend's arms tremble rather than flutter, her feet twitch rather than glide, and it’s at this point that the ballet comes alive thematically and choreographically. With the couple's blossoming relationship complicated by elements of bestiality, their plight takes on a depth and urgency that sit perfectly with the poignant score and render the revelatory pas de deux, in which the White Swan is divested of her constrictive wings, a sublime watch.
It’s not a stretch to say the ballet could end quite comfortably here, and indeed a handful of attendees on opening night attempted to depart after the second curtain drop only to realise their mistake when it zoomed back up a minute later to usher in the final act, a hasty affair that sees the villains return and dupe the prince into marrying the wrong swan. The tension is there, particularly when the queen violently slays the duplicitous Black Swan, but unlike the scene prior, the dancing doesn’t fully realise the emotional nuances at hand. In the final moments an inky curtain descends to scoop up the prince and the doomed White Swan in one of the show’s few technical flourishes. Were Malliot's choreography and direction as tight as his styling, LAC's themes might resonate more deeply.
photo | ©Michael Khoury