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Les Ballets de Monte Carlo Brings Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Darkly Compelling Adaptation of “Swan Lake” to NYC

I’m not a fan of the fact that standing ovations, once reserved for truly superb performances, have become almost routine in NYC. Often, in spite of not being able to see the curtain calls while everyone in front of me is up and blocking my view, I remain stubbornly in my seat if I feel that plain old clapping is sufficient. Yet on the evening of Friday, March 15th 2014 at City Center, I was on my feet with the rest of the audience to applaud Les Ballets de Monte Carlo’s excellent performance of choreographer-director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “LAC – after Swan Lake”. The ballet premiered in 2011 but the all-too-brief run from March 14th to 16th this year, celebrating Maillot’s 20th anniversary with Monte Carlo, was the first chance NYC dancegoers have had to see this magnificent production. That’s probably more superlatives than I’ve ever included in the first paragraph of any review!


Much of the credit for the daring revision of one of the most treasured ballets in the classical canon goes to award-winning French novelist Jean Rouaud, who is listed in the credits as the “dramaturgist”. The playbill notes that Maillot had a “personal vision” for his updating of the tale of Siegfried and Odette and that he worked with Rouaud to explore themes such as animal versus human, good versus evil, and haunting fears from childhood. The felicitous collaboration was enhanced by the fine work of costume designer Phillipe Guillotel, lighting designer Samuel Thery with the choreographer, and additional music added to Tchaikovsky’s score by Bertrand Maillot.


But enough about the creators. The dancers were technically and artistically terrific. Also, the tweaked plot demanded nuanced acting that the company members definitely delivered. I was especially impressed by Alvaro Prieto as the Prince’s father, a role that doesn’t exist in the original “Swan Lake.” He was convincing even though he danced full out in many scenes right along with the corps. Prieto was never out of character even when he was flying high.


The clever subplot about the King’s possible previous dalliance with Her Majesty of the Night, which may have resulted in the Black Swan being his love child, gave Prieto and Moimoza Koike as the Queen ample opportunity to emote magnificently. They never dissolved into melodrama and they infused a bit of understated humor into their interactions.


The prince, Stephan Bourgond, was also first rate. He can toss off gymnastic feats and multiple turns, yet he was endearingly tender in the pas de deux with the lovely Anja Behrend as the White Swan. They captured the joy of their memories as a little girl and little boy feeling the pull of first love before a spell was cast on her that turned her from human to bird. This part of their relationship was established in a filmed prologue, which was somewhat disturbing in that it depicted Her Majesty of the Night kidnapping the little girl. Even so, the scenario rang true in the sense that children do indeed experience infatuation as well as night terrors of that can linger for a lifetime.


Speaking of Her Majesty of the Night, Maude Sabourin was a commanding and suitably frightening presence. In addition, she is a dancer who is clearly at the peak of her powers.


My only complaint is that while the corps was dancing, important acting scenes with key characters were taking place at the same time downstage right or left. What the leads were doing was not incidental. As a result, the audience was torn between enjoying the ensemble work and focusing on the plot development.


Finally, and I can be a spoiler because you probably won’t get to read this in time to see the production yourself, I was enthralled by two visual effects. First, feathered “mittens” showed us when the White Swan and the Black Swan were birds rather than women. This device, which sounds silly as I write about it, effectively conveyed the chilling message that the spell had deprived the White Swan of the essential human ability to use her hands. The flock of swans, called Chimeras, wore feathered mittens throughout because in this story line they are not enchanted humans. Maillot created hostile movements for them that mimick the aggressive nature of real swans rather than romanticizing them as gentle and vulnerable creatures.


The second visual effect that captivated me came in the final climatic scene. A floating fabric turned into the lake that made the ill-fated lovers disappear. Again, describing this makes the device sounds silly. Writing about it can’t do justice to seeing it. Trust me, it works.


If you’re reading this on Sunday morning, March 16th, hurry on over to City Center for the final performance at 2 p.m. For the rest of you, please join me in hoping that this production in particular and other works in the Monte Carlo repertory come to our shores again soon.


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