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"The Black Swan is supposed to do 32 fouettes," said an experienced dance critic to me at the first intermission of the Voronezh State Ballet Theatre of Russia's performance of Swan Lake Thursday night at Northrop Auditorium. "Count 'em. See if she does them all."
Dancer Anastasiya Rusinova did 27, which was consistent with that critic's appraisal of the performance as unexceptional—"flat," said another colleague in agreement. "But then," that colleague said, "you have to remember that they're young, and we've seen a lot of Russian ballet."
I've seen more than my share of ballet (given that fewer than one out of every 25 U.S. adults attend a ballet performance in any given year, that's not saying much), but I don't often see performances like this—certainly not in the Twin Cities. 16 swans dancing en pointe in perfect unison is a sight to behold, even if they're not the 16 best swans.
Tchaikovsky's 1877 ballet is having its hottest cultural moment in decades—maybe since its premiere—with the success of Darren Aronofsky's film Black Swan, a nominee for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. Black Swan, which extends the ballet's central metaphor into the troubled real life of Natalie Portman's character, is one of the first major films in a long time to take ballet seriously as a thrilling art form in and of itself: Aronofsky doesn't make his prima ballerina learn breakdancing.
Black Swan surely helped fill Northrop on Thursday night—the concluding night of the 2010-11 dance season at the venue, which is now closing for renovations—but this was nothing like the dark, harrowing production depicted in the film. This was, in the words of the critic I met, "as classic as classic gets." The choreography by Ivanov and Petipa dates from the 19th century, and Valeriy Kochiashvili's sets and costumes have a similarly vintage feel.
The recorded music—not even credited in the program—sounded, not to mince words, absolutely terrible. What I most missed from Black Swan was not the sexy psychodrama, but the high-fidelity score. Tchaikovsky's ballet is one of the masterpieces of its type, and the music was very poorly served by the auditorium's dull, bass-heavy sound system.
Still, I wouldn't have missed it. One of the contributions Black Swan makes to cultural literacy is to demonstrate that ballet is an art form that exists at the extremes of human capabilities. Very few people are able to perform at this level, and those few only with intense training and for a short period. To see this fully-staged production of one of ballet's great balls-out epics was tremendously satisfying.
If the dancing wasn't as good as it gets, it was nonetheless pretty damn good. Rusinova was brittle and almost twee in Black Swan mode, but as the White Swan she was a magnificent, icy creature; Swan Lake is all about the expressive arms, and Rusinova has got 'em. The conclusion of Act 2, in which Prince Siegfried (Ivan Alexeev) falls for the swan, was a beautiful reverie. They just don't make 'em like that any more.