Black Swan gave Natalie Portman a plum part (and an Oscar nomination) as the prima ballerina who’s driven to disintegration by her efforts to unlock her dark side. In the process, Darren Aronofsky’s delightfully lurid thriller serves up more than a few tasty morsels of an edgy Swan Lake as mounted by a company very much like New York City Ballet. Just coincidentally, New York City Ballet has scheduled nine performances of artistic director Peter Martins’ Swan Lake from February 11 to 26, the eve of the Academy Awards. Coincidence or not, for budding balletomanes whose appetites have been whet by the movie, it’s an irresistible opportunity to feast on a full course of arabesques and fouettés, not to mention Tchaikovsky’s rich, romantic score.
As the movie suggests, Swan Lake does indeed pose a unique challenge: the dual role of white swan and black swan—Odette, the paragon of purity, and Odile, the temptress who steals her prince away. For New York City Ballet principal dancer Ashley Bouder, who has danced the part to much acclaim and will be taking it on again this month, life does not imitate art, or at least the movies. The seductive virtuosity of Odile comes more naturally to her, says Bouder. Odette, by contrast, is “slow and soft, and she can be very fragile,” she says, “all qualities that I have to think about a lot to be able to do.”
Bouder points out that the connections between New York City Ballet and Swan Lake run deeper than the movie. The company remains indelibly associated with its founder, George Balanchine, the towering figure of modern ballet. And Balanchine, born in St. Petersburg in 1904, was among the last generation of dancers to emerge from the world of Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa, whose Swan Lake (along with their Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker) stands at the pinnacle of the classical repertory. Martins, who became the company’s ballet master in chief after Balanchine’s death, in 1983, honors that lineage. His Swan Lake incorporates much from the original choreography by Petipa and his assistant, Lev Ivanov, as well as the speed and clarity that are hallmarks of Balanchine’s style. You don’t need to study up to enjoy Swan Lake, though. Newcomers to ballet should “try not to come in with any preconceived notions,” says Bouder. “It’s an epic love story, and it’s a greater story than the one told in the movie.”
In addition to Swan Lake, the winter season, which ends February 27, provides some prime opportunities to experience Balanchine’s style and glorious choreography. Bouder is particularly excited about “Square Dance,” a Balanchine work set to music by Arcangelo Corelli and Antonio Vivaldi that she’ll be performing for the first time. It’s paired on various nights with ballets by Jerome Robbins and “Plainspoken,” a new work by Benjamin Millepied, who has partnered with Bouder in Swan Lake as the prince, a role he reprised in Black Swan.
Swan Lake, by the way, has been fitted over the years with numerous endings. Martins’ version particularly distinguishes the production, Bouder says. She prefers it to the traditional ending, in which the star-crossed lovers, Odette and her prince, are reunited in heaven as the curtain falls. Ironically, life could well imitate art in the heavenly realm of Hollywood on Oscar night, when Natalie Portman reunites with Millepied, now her real-life husband-to-be. Vegas bookmakers, always suckers for a happy ending, put her odds of being crowned as Best Actress at 1-to-5, making her the prohibitive favorite.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit nycballet.com.