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© Maya Iltus
© Maya Iltus
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The Israel Ballet Soars In ‘White Swan’ Performance

Picture of Ana Harmon
Updated: 29 November 2016
The Israel Ballet‘s recent premiere, White Swan, responds to charges of classical ballet as archaic, simplistic and chauvinistic by juxtaposing two works separated by 120 years of choreographic history. Lev Ivanov’s 1895 Act II from Swan Lake, set to Tchaikovsky’s most iconic classical ballet score, shares the stage with Greek choreographer Andonis Foniadakis’ 2016 energetic remix, Swan Lake Suite. Dancers begin the performance tightly bound by classical technique, donning white tulle tutus, but soon escape into contemporary wildlife.

Swan Lake is among ballet’s best-known stories: an imprisoned maiden turned swan, Odette, and her now flocking friends are under the near-unbreakable spell of sorcerer Von Rothbart. A nearby Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette and vows to set her free from her bird bondage. Only through their sacrificial deaths are the lovebirds eventually able to overcome Von Rothbart’s curse.

The original four-act ballet also includes a devious black swan who tricks the prince into professing his love. Ivanov’s version does not include the black swan, and Foniadakis does not explicitly portray her, yet he seems to inject a bit of the domineering black swan into his entire cast.

Tchaikovsky’s evocative overture establishes an immediate classical scene at the Israeli Opera Theater. Von Rothbart enters in an all-black sequined suit, monitoring the movements of his captured maidens-turned-swans. Swan Queen Noa Cohen’s entrance is chillingly majestic while possessing an underlying timidity required for the role. Cohen’s balletic lines are long and unending, her delicate arms unblemished wings. There was some lack of chemistry, however, between the Swan Queen and Prince Siegfried, who could have been more attentive in gently partnering his queen.

The celebrated ‘4 Little Swans’ pas de quatre was near perfect. Dancers Lior Horev, Rina Pinsky, Lissa von Manetch, and Victoria Alexandrovskaya elevated the scene through precise footwork, coordinated spacing, and flawless head and neck work. The ‘Swan Lake’ corps de ballet famously generates the most sublime moments through impressive formations and flocking. The company’s corps dancers formidably rise to the intensively physical and emotional challenges of Swan Lake. This performance proved that The Israel Ballet has benefitted enormously from the recent hiring of Artistic Director Maté Moray.

Credit: Maya Iltus
Credit: Maya Iltus | © Maya Iltus

Ivanov’s Act II from Swan Lake comes to a close as Rothbart’s spell forces Odette and her fellow maidens to return to their lake prison. Rothbart literally pulls the curtain over Anna Chroshtzeva’s romantic lakeside set as Tchaikovsky’s classical suite takes a shocking turn. Sound designer Julien Tarride cleverly alters the score in an electronic transition towards Foniadakis’ ‘Swan Lake Suite.’ Avi Yona Bueno’s more contemporary lighting calls our attention to the front of the stage, transporting the audience into the choreographic future.

Though swans are famously monogamous creatures, known for appearing to fall in love with just one partner in an entire lifetime, Foniadakis instead portrays slick and sexually liberated swans, swiftly moving between partners. The ballet becomes ultra-humanized, as more pedestrian dancers in form-fitting body suits, jog, flip, and bop as if they were at a local dance club. The ethereal and pristine quality of Ivanov’s ballet is replaced with rapid-fire arm work and footwork, crowd-pleasing acrobatics, and orgy-like, sometimes chaotic formations.

A decade ago, choreographer Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake rendition famously replaced the female corps de ballet of swans with male contemporary dancers; Foniadakis’ continues this tradition as male dancers both masculinize and satirize the piece – flapping their longer wingspans wildly, sometimes ridiculously.

doing up costumes
© Eyal Landesman

In another contemporary variation on a classical theme, Foniadakis cleverly challenges the prolific notion of the mute swan. A dancer’s voice is often layered on top of Tchaikovsky’s and Tarride’s scores, explaining that a dancer must be ‘vulnerable, passionate, dramatic’ but also ‘let herself go.’ This section takes on a meta-performative quality, as notoriously silent dancers on stage begin to self-reflect on process and dancers’ struggles as heard through the overhead speakers.

In an impressive finale starring Tomoko Takahashi’s refined fouette turns, the remaining dancers encircle her on the ground, utilizing their bodies percussively to reflect Takahashi’s rhythm, a departure from the classical notion that music alone dictates movement in ballet.

Foniadakis’ interpretation is visually impressive, his complex and unbelievably quick choreography is masterfully grasped by the dancers. Some additional conceptual work, however, may have benefitted the piece, as tricks and speed only go so far. Regardless, it is clear that The Israel Ballet is taking flight in a promising new direction.