Stage: Wednesday, April 06, 2005
Carolyn Judson, as the White Swan, in TBT’s ‘Swan Lake.’
Swan Lake
Fri-Sun at Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. $16-95. 877-212-4280.
Once More to the Lake

Ben Stevenson inaugurates one of his signature pieces, with Texas Ballet Theater.


Once More to the Lake
Ben Stevenson inaugurates one of his signature pieces, with Texas Ballet Theater.
It’s amazing that Swan Lake, arguably the most popular Russian ballet today, nearly disappeared after its first performances in Moscow in 1877. Opening-night viewers dismissed it as tiresome and old-fashioned. Even Tchaikovsky’s enchanting score couldn’t save the day.
We don’t know what the show looked like — the original choreography vanished — but it must have been reasonably dreary. It wasn’t until Lev Ivanov, assistant director of the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg, re-staged the second act for a Tchaikovsky memorial in 1893 that the ballet’s potential came to light. Ivanov reworked the whole ballet two years later in collaboration with his boss, Marius Petipa, and the result was an instant hit.
This is the model Ben Stevenson used when he set Swan Lake on the Houston Ballet while artistic director there. He preserved the plot and brought much of his own choreography to the first and third acts. And this was the production that Texas Ballet Theater, his current company, brought to the Dallas Music Hall last week. Additional performances are scheduled this weekend in Bass Hall, part of the company’s policy of alternating openings between the cities.
The show is gorgeous — very Royal Ballet — with sets and costumes by David Walker, updated from the medieval times of earlier versions to the 19th century; instead of wearing wimples and slashed sleeves, the Queen Mother and her ladies sport Second Empire gowns and ostrich-plumed hats. And the military men in the specialty dances get to wear knocked-out uniforms.
To reduce four acts to a manageable two and a half hours, Stevenson combines the first and last two, saving 45 minutes of intermissions. He pretty much follows the customary plot until the third act, where major surgery is evident. The finale is cut, and some fancy stitching shoots us ahead to the fourth act duet and the lovers’ leap into the lake.
Few people are going to regret the lost lament that traditionally opens the fourth act, but Tchaikovsky’s dramatic music for the third act finale is sorely missed. As the sorcerer tricks the young prince into declaring his love for the wrong woman, the brass section screams a celebration of the triumph of evil over good, and the curtain comes down on a scene of terror and chaos. We still get turmoil — Stevenson even blows up the castle — but with music that doesn’t say “end of the act” and allows a transition back to the lake with the curtain still up.
Of the three casts of principals that were seen, a handful of extraordinary performances surfaced. On Saturday Enrica Guana Tseng, dancing both the White and Black Swans, was remarkable as the gentle, vulnerable White Swan Odette — a miracle of unhurried lyricism, languid arms, and Russian-cum-Royal-Ballet style. It doesn’t seem excessive to say she lends credence to the belief that the second act of Swan Lake can be almost a religious experience.
Tseng’s Black Swan was less persuasive. The role doesn’t seem to fit her temperament. Even though equipped with the necessary skills, she seemed reluctant to open up to the abandon for which the role calls.
Her prince was Andre Silva, who continues to impress with his engaging stage presence and formidable technique. At 19, he does all the bravura tricks with ease, stopping turns on a dime, landing leaps without effort, and blending his preparations into the dance. But his greatest gift is a God-given charisma that just lights up the stage.
On Sunday, Carolyn Judson debuted as the Swan Queen and gave us a Black Swan for the books. Another young dancer, all of 20, she came onstage with her feathers on fire and tore into this traditional showcase with the assurance of a prima ballerina. Everything seemed right — the joy with which she seduced the prince and the technical fireworks she tossed off with all the snap, crackle, and pop you could wish for. She ran out of steam at the end of the 32 fouettes sequence and came off pointe a couple of beats early, but the rest was pure magic.
Her White Swan is still a work in progress. Judson’s arms need to float more; she’s too tense. Relaxing the tempo of her movements may help. But this is a major talent coming into bloom before our eyes.
Julie Gumbinner, who danced the opening night Swan Queen, remains an enigma. A lovely ballerina with serviceable technique, Gumbinner has developed in most every way except dramatic insight. Not much humanity seeps through her performances, although in the final duet with the prince some genuine emotion began to peek out. As Odile, the Black Swan, she performed with more intensity, yet rarely looked at the prince whom she was trying to deceive. Gumbinner seemed to be dancing in her own world.
Her Siegfried was Lucas Priolo, who also partnered Judson. A handsome, elegant dancer, he may have modeled the role on Prince Charles of England — aristocratic, remote, and a bit stuffy. His technique is still a little erratic. You’re never sure when he launches into some difficult move whether he’ll make it cleanly or not. Usually nothing major happens — a slight over-rotation here, a bounce or foot adjustment there — but it’s just enough to rob the performance of the credit it deserves.
Jack Buckannan led the Fort Worth Symphony in the pit, with great success for the most part, although it’s still a mystery why the strings should dry up and die during the prince’s variation three performances in a row.

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