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Odd Swans, No Lake : Anthony Dowell and the Royal Ballet Offer a Cross-Eyed Look at Old Classic

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TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

Remember the Royal Ballet?

Remember the glorious ensemble that used to define a perfect fusion of British elegance and Russian urgency in “Swan Lake”? Remember the company that produced and developed the historic partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev and, perhaps even better, the blissful union of Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell?

Forget all that.

Ballet in general isn’t what it used to be. The Royal Ballet most certainly isn’t.

When Southern California last saw this vaunted organization, in the fall of 1991 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the central attraction was an unfamiliar, emphatically controversial “Swan Lake.” Dowell, having advanced from danseur noble to company director (you may call him Sir Anthony now), had restaged the creaky masterpiece in 1987 with one eye on the future and one on the past.

The result, alas, was a cross-eyed view of the ballet. Reconstructing some long-lost passages of the Petipa-Ivanov production of 1895, Dowell attempted to fuse ancient tradition with patchwork contributions from Frederick Ashton (good), David Bintley (not so good) and Irina Jakobson. Then he set the choreographic hodge-podge against cliche-ridden decors by Yolanda Sonnabend that fussed with modernist decadence and evasive abstraction in pursuit of trendiness.

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The swans looked odd. The lake didn’t even exist.

Dowell’s production, which returned Thursday to the delight of a deliriously uncritical audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, does not take place in the usual medieval-German never-never land. In yet another triumph of temporal irrelevance, it takes place in the all-too specific Russia of Tchaikovsky’s day.

Prince Siegfried looks a lot like a czarevich. Rothbart, definitely not red-bearded, looks like a big bald owl, and he brings an army of clunky Munchkins with him to the ball. The sets, a muddle of silly Expressionist symbols and Art Nouveau excesses, look like leftovers from some post-war Teutonic “Tales of Hoffmann.” The costumes, which allow the Swan Queen to model a classical tutu but trap her attendants in long, tattered skirts, look like mistakes.

With all its visual distractions and distortions, this “Swan Lake” might still be salvaged by brilliant principals. No such luck here.

Darcey Bussell, the stellar swan, is a lovely dancer--lyrical, long-limbed and intrinsically glamorous. She won all hearts in Costa Mesa as Masha in MacMillan’s “Winter Dreams.” She seemed nervous, however, and strangely detached in this exposing challenge.

She didn’t do much to suggest a contrast between the innocent Odette and the evil Odile. This ballerina doesn’t even subscribe to the one-smiles-and-the-other-doesn’t school of portraiture. She changes from white to black literally but not figuratively.

Bussell phrased Odette’s adagio expansively, mustered some breath-taking balances, and got through Odile’s fouette marathon (30 speedy whips plus a couple of punctuation turns) neatly enough. Technical uncertainties marred her line in the second act, however, and mechanical bravura muted her flash in the third. She wasn’t memorably ethereal at one extreme or memorably demonic at the other.

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Zoltan Solymosi, her Hungarian prince, offered a lot of extroversion to mask--or smother--his partner’s introversion. He mimed the role with passion--sometimes dashing, sometimes brooding--that bordered on the hysterical but remained commanding nonetheless. His florid elegance waned, unfortunately, when it came to bravura flights notable for modest elevation and primitive articulation.

David Drew, veteran of many a better “Swan Lake,” stalked the boards bravely in Rothbart’s cumbersome feathers. Errol Pickford, himself a flamboyant prince on other occasions, easily stole the peasant pas de trois from Nicola Roberts and Muriel Valtat.

The fastest quartet of cygnets in captivity performed with dauntless precision, and the various character dances were dispatched with elan. (If the high-heeled routine of the six Gay ‘90s princesses brought us perilously close to camp, one can’t blame the participants for that.) Ultimately, the best performance on the stage may have come from the 24 women of the corps whose well-schooled manners brought willowy cohesion to what used to be the lake scenes. These supporting swans turned out to be particularly eloquent in the geometric maneuvers resurrected from Ivanov’s last act.

Ironically, Tchaikovsky was better-served in the pit than on the stage. Mark Ermler, celebrated maestro of the Bolshoi Opera, conducted with welcome speed and knowing style. He found a splendid ad-hoc orchestra at his disposal, with none less than Sidney Weiss illuminating the violin solos.

Final grump: When the Royal Ballet played sophisticated San Francisco last week, the repertory included an interesting mixed bill as well as the inevitable fowl ritual. For provincial Los Angeles, a shaky “Swan Lake” must be enough.

* “Swan Lake” will be repeated by the Royal Ballet, with various casts, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., today at 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets $15-$50. (213) 972-7211.

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