When the Pennsylvania Ballet asked noted choreographer Christopher Wheeldon to create a new take on “Swan Lake” in 2004, what resulted was not a gut rehab or even a major reworking of the classic 1895 version by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
Instead, Wheeldon found an intriguing way to refresh this beloved love fantasy while still staying almost entirely within a classical 19th-century dance aesthetic and maintaining the heart and soul of the beloved original.
THE JOFFREY BALLET — ‘SWAN LAKE’
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19, with eight additional performances through Oct. 28
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
In its continuing bid to add more story ballets to its repertoire, the Joffrey Ballet premiered this version in 2014 to considerable acclaim and revived it Wednesday evening at the Auditorium Theatre with the first of 10 performances running through Oct. 28.
The most noticeable aspect of Wheeldon’s rethinking of “Swan Lake” is his shift of the action to the 19th century world of the Paris Opera Ballet, which famed Impressionist Edgar Degas depicted so memorably in scores of paintings and pastels.
In this version, “Swan Lake” becomes a ballet within the ballet, and what is real and imagined blur. The Principal Dancer is seemingly transformed into Prince Siegfried and falls in love with Odette, the queen of the swan maidens, and experiences all the ups and downs of this well-known story.
But at the end, after having been deceived into pledging his love to Odile, Odette’s evil doppelganger, at a gala dinner, he returns to the lake in frantic search of Odette but it is too late. Alone and broken-hearted, the Principal Dancer finds himself back in the ballet studio and realizes that his beloved is really a fellow dancer who is there waiting for him.
The understated scenery (Adrianne Lobel) and handsome costumes (Jean-Marc Puissant) are on loan from the Pennsylvania Ballet. In keeping with the notion of a ballet within a ballet, the entire story takes place within the walls of the ballet studio, which is modified and opened up as needed to fit each scene’s needs.
Although Wheeldon has brought pronounced updates on classical ballet to some of his other works, he kept much of Ivanov and Petipa’s original choreography in this revised “Swan Lake” and made sure that his modifications stayed very much within their style.
The most contemporary aspect of this production is his depiction of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart, who controls Odette and the swan maidens. With sinister make-up and raggedy clothes, the bald-headed figure (vividly realized by Fabrice Calmels) leeringly crouches and bobs in sometimes un-ballet-like ways.
Also interesting is the portrayal of Von Rothbart in the rehearsal and party scenes as one of the top-hatted ballet patrons shown stalking the ballerinas backstage in Degas’ works with designs that went beyond just dance appreciation.
The unequivocal star — and “star” is no exaggeration — of the show is Victoria Jaiani as Odette and Odile. An absolutely wonderful dancer with striking extensions and undulating form, she powerfully conveyed the pain and vulnerability of Odette and reveled in the deception of Odile, handily realizing the latter’s famous 32 fouettés at the end of Act 3.
She overshadowed Dylan Gutierrez as the Principal Dancer and Prince Siegfried. A tall, strapping dancer who certainly looked the part, Gutierrez was a solid partner and an athletic soloist but his acting came off a little stiff and it was hard not to wish for a bit more ease and naturalness in his movement.
The rest of cast sometimes seemed a bit tentative, performing with the technical assuredness typical of Joffrey dancers but lacking slightly in emotional commitment — an issue that one suspects will resolve itself quickly as the performers settle into their roles and put any opening-night jitters behind them.
That said, the dancers portraying the swan maidens in Act 3 ably handled the technical demands of the swirling and criss-crossing choreography with its celebrated one-legged stutter slides. And the celebrated pas de quatre with Amanda Assucena, Nicole Ciapponi, Cara Marie Gary and Leticia Stock displayed all the snappy precision it requires.
Also notable were the lively performers in the three divertissements in Act 3, especially Christine Rocas as the exotic Russian Dancer and Anais Bueno, Rory Hohenstein and Elivelton Tomazi as the three fiery Spanish Dancers.
Led by music director Scott Speck, the Chicago Philharmonic was in good form as it served as the pit orchestra for this production and brought Tchaikovsky’s evocative score to life.
Just how much of an “improvement” Wheeldon’s revision of “Swan Lake” might be is open to question. But as this largely successful revival made clear, he manages to put a welcome fresh face on this story without going too far and compromising any of the innate beauty and power of the 19th-century original.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.