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A New ‘Swan Lake’ by Baryshnikov

Times Music/Dance Critic

Orange County may not have invented the wheel this weekend, but it came close. It discovered “Swan Lake.”

The official puff machines have done a lot of gushing about a purported world premiere . To the rest of the universe, it may seem a little late in the century for that.

Still, one fact languishes beyond dispute: The Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa did host the first performances of an elaborate, thoughtful, often wonderful, sometimes odd, $1.5-million “Swan Lake” staged by Mikhail Baryshnikov and designed by PierLuigi Samaritani for American Ballet Theatre.

In their new production, Baryshnikov & Co. did not choose to follow any fashionable trends toward revisionism. They offered no psychosexual insights, no metaphysical diversions. They concentrated on Romantic business as usual, more or less, with the focus on a lot of wonderful dancing.

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The only serious problem involved the scenery. Samaritani has juggled three disparate styles. Worse, he sometimes allowed the decor to get in the way of the dancers.

He created an airy, semi-imaginative, quasi-abstract forest in lavender for Act I. He turned literal for a perfectly functional, tapestry-bedecked ballroom. Trouble arose, however, in the second and last acts.

He cluttered these with contradictory storybook images that recall nothing so much as the D’Oyly Carte “Pirates of Penzance.” As the curtain rose, toy swans from the Kirov glided sweetly over stylized water on the floor of a ruined Gothic castle. The crucial symmetry of Ivanov’s original plan was compromised later when some of the swan maidens kept disappearing behind the pillars.

At the witching hour, a huge, round, white blob rose from the swamp. It could have been a bubble or a spaceship. A visiting wag speculated that it was a wheel of brie. A company spokesman insisted that it was the moon.

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On opening night, the confusing blob actually materialized within the walls of the building. Two performances later, it was discreetly moved outdoors, to the background. Theatrically, this must be a “Swan Lake” in progress.

The choreographic design is another matter. Baryshnikov has surrounded the familiar, greatest-hit passages of Petipa and Ivanov with some stylish inventions of his own.

A gracious new waltz and a vigorous new polonaise for the courtiers in the first act offset some clumsy byplay for the old tutor (even Alexander Minz is at a loss to validate the cliches). The peasant pas de trois, minus peasants, has been wisely reinstated. The frantic antics of the Kirov jester have been left, thank goodness, in Leningrad.

In the third act, Baryshnikov introduced standard-brand divertissements for assorted princesses and swashbucklers. He has contributed a really charming ambi-gendered mask dance, however, and embellished what used to be the Black Swan pas de deux with variations that cleverly refocus Siegfried’s ardor and allow the wicked Odile to mimic the aviary attitudes of the innocent Odette.

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What’s this, you ask? A swan that used to be black?

Yes, Natasha. In one of his more dubious innovations, Baryshnikov has kept the contrasting heroines in pristine white. The better to fool you with, my dear. . . .

The last act is all Baryshnikov’s, and it may represent his most memorable choreographic achievement to date. The marvelous swan corps--dressed in long, white and black tutus--becomes a palpable force here. The women are employed as a forceful, flexible mass of whispering feet and wild, sweeping arms.

The finale involves a simple, affecting pas de deux to music culled from Tchaikovsky’s original third act. When the lovers strike their heroic suicide pact, Rothbart--stripped of his power--is reduced from nasty crow to pathetic red-bearded corpse. Odette and Siegfried literally rise through the misty waves in triumphant apotheosis. The curtain falls and the audience gasps. The subsequent ovation is built in.

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All three casts seen thus far deserved their ovations, each for different reasons.

At the gala opening, Friday, Susan Jaffe danced Odette-Odile with bona-fide ballerina charisma, her eyes blazing, her back bending in supple arches, her long arms undulating in the exotic Plisetskaya tradition. She gave us the heroine as an infinitely sad, otherworldly bird.

Amanda McKerrow, who took over at the Saturday matinee (and danced the role for the first time in her career), exuded technical finesse in support of dewy sweetness. If, in Act III she seemed more prom queen than swan queen, she offered a poignant portrayal of the heroine as a vulnerable child.

The big surprise came Saturday night, when Christine Dunham, ranked by ABT merely as a soloist, danced her first Odette-Odile. Tall, dark, womanly rather than girlish, and almost aggressive in her fervor, she did everything on a grand scale. She took instant command of the stage and phrased with striking amplitude without ignoring expressive nuance. She made the heroine a flamboyantly tragic monarch. Of the three, incidentally, she encountered the least trouble with those infernal fouettes.

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The inaugural Siegfried, making his debut, was Andris Liepa of the Bolshoi. Ultra-blond, eternally boyish and intrinsically elegant, he is prone to mannerism and can be technically untidy. He remains a considerate partner, however, and wins most hearts with his buoyant leaps and gentle landings.

At the Saturday matinee, Wes Chapman took the role for the first time. Some pardonable rough spots notwithstanding, he capitalized on clarity of attack, easy bravura, infectious enthusiasm and youthful eagerness.

That evening, Ross Stretton looked, in the best sense, like a reliable old pro. Strong, athletic but self-effacing and eminently sympathetic, he offered ideal support to his debutante ballerina.

The admirable contributions of the secondary dancers will be reviewed after another performance.

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In the ultra-resonant pit, members of the Pacific Symphony played with ever-increasing cohesion and suavity for Jack Everly (evening performances) and Charles Barker (the matinee).


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