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The Carolina Ballet began its four-day run of Robert Weiss’ charming version of Swan Lake with an excellent performance in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Since its 2005 premiere, ballet fans and lovers of fairy tales and children’s book illustrations, not to mention those of us who can’t get enough Tchaikovsky, have eagerly awaited its return to the company’s schedule. No one left disappointed on opening night of the season’s final program – except, of course, for the fact that this time around the work was danced to recorded music rather than live, a diminishment of the art to which we must apparently become reconciled.
Like many transformation tales, Swan Lake can be told in different ways to emphasize various aspects of its lessons. Weiss’ version is neither the grand traditional one, nor yet the Matthew Bourne innovation, but a gentler telling with true love triumphant and evil banished. Weiss’ storyline and the production design were inspired by Viennese artist Lisbeth Zwerger’s illustrated book, and Jeff A.R. Jones’ scenery successfully translates the style of Zwerger’s intimate drawings to the oversized scale of the stage. The lake and clearing in the enchanted wood are especially good and are brought to life by lighting master Ross Kolman’s evocations of time and weather. David Heuvel’s rich costumes further boost the magnitude of the aesthetic experience.
The fairy tale world the designers have created is the setting for a number of Weiss’ loveliest and most enjoyable dances, which are put together in a deeply satisfying way. Many of the group dances involve the rhythmic massing and spreading of dancers – they make a heartbeat giving the work the resonant, timeless quality of myth. Linking these are long pulsing lines of movement like the wing-beats of the swans. This structure provides a beautiful framework for the dances of the main characters, which contain any number of arresting images and exciting feats.
The Carolina Ballet has been touring this Swan quite a lot lately. They took it on a seven-city tour of China last fall and more recently have been presenting it for school audiences around the state. I am happy to report that extreme familiarity with the routine has not dimmed the ardor of the dancing. Only in one or two spots in the early scenes was there any glibness, or ennui, in the presentation. What was noticeable instead was an exponential increase in the crispness and verve of the dancing since its opening night nearly two years ago. The entire company moved extremely well, with Cyrille de la Barre, as the Sorcerer, particularly standing out, especially in the leaps and in his dance with Melissa Podcasy, who was shooting sparks. Margaret Severin-Hansen and Pablo Javier Perez have burnished their dances together to an even higher gloss. But it was, once again, Timour Bourtasenkov, the Prince, and Lilyan Vigo, the Swan Princess, who commanded our hearts with their nobility and grace, at the end of this ninth chapter in what one hopes will be the very long fairy tale of the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh.