Atlanta Ballet: Black Swan

At the end of the last piece of last night’s performance of Atlanta Ballet’s Black Swan program, a violinist sitting next to me asked me if that was it. She also asked if I noticed how off the dancers were. I said yes to both questions; it was a disappointing show. It felt rather short and it just wasn’t very well done. It didn’t help that of the two pieces, the first was an excerpt that ended in a cliffhanger and the second didn’t really have a very strong ending.

The program began with act III of Petipa and Ivanov’s version of Swan Lake performed to an unspecified recording of Tchaikovsky’s music. This is the ballroom scene where Von Rathbart fools Prince Siegfried with Odile (Black Swan) posing as Odette, his love interest. It works well as a stand-alone performance piece because it has a variety of folk-inspired dances performed for the entertainment of the ball’s guests and also has a good bit of story with it, not to mention some virtuosic choreography for Odile and Siegfried.

The gist of the story from the first two acts was projected on a screen to bring the audience up to speed and then we found ourselves looking at the ballroom. The backdrop was a pleasing shade of blue, with a number of baroque-style paintings framed on it. A few chandeliers were were hanging from above and gold-colored chairs were places around the perimeter of the stage, with the Queen and Sigfried seated downstage left and the guests around the rear and left sides. The costumes were good, period-influenced and were colorful enough, though not exceptionally so. Instead of Von Rathbart removing his disguise to reveal his treachery to Siegfried, they had a second dancer playing Odette dancing behind the central painting on the backdrop, which became translucent when the dancer was lit behind it for the reveal. That was a good way to work around the fact that the audience doesn’t see Von Rathbart in any other guise in this excerpt.

The performance was a mixed bag. The Neopolitan duet was good as were the Czardas. The dancers in the Spanish and mazurka sections had some trouble keeping in time with each other and there were problems with adherence to blocking, particularly from the men, that made those dances seem sloppy. One or two of the six princesses were off beat and off mark enough that it really bugged me: theirs is one of those dances that really relies on synchronism and ensemble shape for it’s prettiness. Jessica Assef did a good job as Odile and the Black Swan’s pas de deux with Siegfried was excellent and really made the piece for me.

The other work on the program was Remembrance/Hereafter by Craig Davidson. This had a live string quartet – including the quarter of the Peachtree String Quartet whom I didn’t see perform the night before – performing Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet. There was a top border made to look like a frame of flowers hanging down that was raised and lowered throughout the performance. Similarly, a striplight was raised and lowered behind a white backdrop, with the colors changing throughout the piece, creating a sort of variable Rothko backdrop. The movement of the lights and border didn’t really seem to add terribly much to the work and was honestly a little distracting as they were moved while the dancers were performing. The costumes were variations on plum and white. The men wore velvet, plum pants and the women wore either solid plum outfits or light dresses that went unevenly from white tops to plum bottoms without blending.

Davidson stated that the work was inspired, in part, by the death of his father and was about the more positive aspects of death, such as the release and reunion with loved ones in an afterlife. Although some scenes were lovely and some seemed to express this, I felt that the overall piece didn’t quite get it’s subject matter to the audience. It also wasn’t a particularly good expression of the music. Stylistically, it seemed to be influenced by – and maybe occasionally even derivative of – some of Christopher Wheeldon’s work, although this was slower and more awkwardly deliberate/contrived looking than Wheeldon’s choreography. In particular, it reminded me a lot of things that I’ve seen in Wheeldon’s shorter, more abstract works. For Four came to mind as I watched it, though probably more because it was set to the same music than any specific choreography.

Even though it made use of 19 dancers, it seemed to be swallowed by the stage during some parts: the choreography just didn’t provide the dancers with what they needed to have a good stage presence. As I mentioned before, the ending wasn’t particularly strong and it felt more like the end of an act instead of the end of an entire work. At times the work felt clunky, although, in fairness, I think that the work suffered some from sloppy performance – the dancers really just weren’t together last night. Still, I think that a perfect performance would have left me feeling that I’d have enjoyed myself more if it was just a concert by the string quartet without the dancing.

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