ALBANY — An enduring memory from my first viewing of Swan Lake is not of Odette, the Black Swan or Rothbart. It’s of the series of barrel turns executed by the Jester. It was a decade ago, and I failed to record his name, but in memory I’ve named him “Baryshnikov.” He proceeded to leap the length of the stage, spinning around with his leg extended as if in an attempt to kick something suspended above him, only to finish with what appeared to be a triple saut de basque. I was struck by this exhibition of strength and endurance.
The Jester is a polarizing subject for those who appreciate Swan Lake. The character is more common in the St. Petersburg version of the ballet. He serves as comic relief, if performed properly. The bulk of his work is observed to the side and detracts one’s attention from the dancers on center stage. Nonetheless, it was his performance I looked forward to when attending the Russian Ballet Theatre’s “Swan Lake” at the Palace Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 12.
This year’s production, choreographed by Nadezhda Kalinina, included exquisitely hand-painted sets and hand-sewn costumes created by designer Sergei Novikov. From the first scene, the set gave the incredible illusion of Rothbart and the swans dancing from within a medieval tapestry. Rothbart’s corvine appearance was striking, especially when paired with the makeup work of Award-winning artist Irina Strukova from “Crazy Rich Asians.” However, Novikov’s remarkable work was best displayed in the ballroom scene in Act Two. The iron throne ornamented by a stained glass window set behind it, and the costumes adorned by the players, exhibited painstaking detail.
The ballet, however, is measured by the performance of three characteristic dances; the Jester, the Dance of the Cygnets, and the Black Swan’s 32 fouettés. Olga Kifyak portrayed the dual roles of Odette and Odile, the Black Swan. This demanding role defines the career of the dancer who tackles it. Kifyak was graceful as the pure-of-heart Odette, and seductive as Odile. The subtle exchange with Rothbart as her Black Swan seduced Prince Siegfried helped complete the art of the storyline. She followed with a strong execution of those 32 fouettés, never wavering from her position.
Mikhail Ovcharov is a physical specimen. His thighs alone look larger than that of a professional football player. A stark contrast to the spindled legs of the male members of the corps, whose sloppy footwork was the only negative mark to this show. His Jester provided wonderful comic relief in a role not muted to satisfy its detractors. His work, too, was highlighted by those magnificent barrel turns.
This production of “Swan Lake” was not accompanied by an orchestra, but instead by a recording of Tchaikovsky’s composition. The recording was played at a noticeably low volume. We could still hear each footfall of the cygnets despite that we were seated several rows away from the stage. This apparent oversight served as a blessing as it drew more attention to the female members of the corps de ballet, specifically during the Dance of the Cygnets. I’ve watched several performances and nothing compared to that of this particular quartet. Each movement was precise and in unison. Each footfall sounded as one, and I found myself thankful that I could hear it.