It was a perfect autumn evening in Minneapolis on Saturday, warm air with a crisp breeze. When I walked into the Ballet of the Dolls performance of Whatever Happened to…Swan Lake?, I had few expectations other than seeing some tutus, some dancing, some humorous sarcasm, and being entertained by sibling rivalry that might get nasty. What I came away with was akin to the autumn holiday Halloween: fabulous costumes (tutus? check!), some tricks (metamorphosis? check!), some treats (great dancing? check!), but then: a little too much horror.
A hybrid between Tchaikovsky’s classic Swan Lake ballet and the infamously tortuous 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, this play got in my face a little too strongly in its attempt to illustrating the evil that lurks in envy. I walked away sad and blue and disappointed that the story told in the first two acts became too graphic and dissonant in the third.
|whatever happened to…swan lake?, presented at the ritz theater through october 30. for tickets and information, see ritzdolls.com.|
Act one does a great job setting up the story: a ballet company run by a retired ballet star has a superb opening night Swan Lake performance. Unfortunately, in the excitement of the celebration, a tragedy takes out the prima ballerina. An accident? Looks like it on stage. But a lurking sister makes us wonder. As she plays out for us how her sister’s accident feeds her fantasy of becoming the new prima ballerina, we get it. Sisters Gone Psycho. The “blonde and light skinned is good, brunette and dark skinned is bad” casting of the ballerinas was gratuitous and unnecessary. Both Stephanie Karr-Smith (blonde) and Stephanie Fellner (brunette) were excellent performers in dance and in character. We didn’t need typecasting. Throughout the Act, we’re treated to attitude galore, humor on occasion, and great dancing throughout. Robert Skafte as Serge (the teacher) plays his role to a “t” between his dancing and his facial expressions. Michael DeLeon as Siegfried (the lead Danseur) is excellent as well as a forlorn, compassionate partner to both Primas. The company of five dancers is also tremendous in both dancing and character.
Act two takes us “years later” and begins with a fabulous flourish: the sassy new Prima (bad-sister) enters with Jackie-O style, a Phyllis Diller cigarette holder, and an Erica Kane ego. But the comedic soon becomes monotonous as we see, a few too many times, dances without a clear story behind them: a forlorn Serge pining for an opportunity to be a star again, a sister über envious, still, of her now paralyzed sister’s past, and a danseur who continues to pine for the golden girl he once had. Unfortunately, throughout the performance, I found myself thinking: “enough already, I get it”. The performance seemed just too long.
The bad sister’s evil tendencies play out enough that we clearly understand she is going to make her sister’s life as a dependent, vulnerable adult hell. Fellner’s dancing has tremendous energy, evil as it may be, and her ability to be little and coy yet strong and mean is terrific. Keeping up with the dancers, as great art often does, the ballet Serge directs goes in a new direction incorporating contemporary dance. Now the “bad-sister-Prima” is out, the “good-sister-Prima” is back in as a director, or at least supporter, and the company entertains us with a King Crimson type dance: part jazz, part art, part painful. One highlight is a clever interaction with the audience as the four main characters become “one” with us, loudly communicating their disdain for each other and the new performance style. It was much appreciated as once they plugged their ears, we felt we could, too. Which was a good thing. When this act ends, after more sister-drama and man-drama, the story could have ended too. But no.
Act three begins when all the dancers are “old.” They hobble, but still dream. They live together in a humble cabin, and it’s clear from the opening scene that all three are weary, sad, and a little crazy. As in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, evil lurks everywhere now. A lifetime of envy combines with the characters’ physical vulnerabilities to create an extremely dysfunctional household. The abuse the “bad-sister” plays out on the “good-sister” is extreme, and I interpreted it to range from starvation to rape, from physical abuse to emotional terrorism (let alone serving pets for dinner…eek!). Too many examples of evil simply made me disconnect from the performance. I get it! Bad-sister is bad and crazy.
Upon leaving, both my friend and I felt not only as if we’d walked through a haunted house, but that it was our very own house, and there was no way out. Just too uncomfortable. Successful in story? Yes. Necessary? I don’t think so. Honestly, the director had me at act two for understanding the horrors of being vulnerable and hated at the same time.
The simple set works perfectly, the costumes are fine, the humorous riffs of Ballet of the Dolls performances are there, but the intensity of the evilness unfortunately didn’t work for me. If I were to go again, I’d leave after act two. I think you’ll walk away feeling satisfied rather than stupefied by the merging of these two classics.