REVIEW: Ballet Philippines’ “Swan Lake” – finding Odette
Ballet Philippines closed their forty-seventh season with Swan Lake. This celebrated white ballet is the quintessential measure of a ballerina and a company. Ballet Philippines’ artistic director Paul Morales said it best when he said that Swan Lake is the summit of achievement in the theater for every major classical ballet company. Just mounting it is a feat in itself. The assemblage of movement tests both the artistic and technical limits of the artists and its leadership. Re-staging surely was a result of blood, sweat and tears. Needless to say, this is an ambitious project that survived against all odds.
Swan Lake is not simply a romantic story of love and deceit. There is much magic involved in the uniquely crafted characters. We have Odette, the heroine who is both human and swan at the same time. Then we have her nemesis Odile (played by the same person) who embodies the sassiness required for a competent impostor. These central characters and all the other roles are layered characters that require a good understanding of the material. It was a thrilling experience to see how this new cast of swans and princes would fare.
Four booming beats were followed by an opalescent beauty who emerged from the darkness. The swan took flight and leapt right into my heart. With her undeniable presence, Denise Parungao playing Odette (the white swan) caught my attention with her soft gaze and sensitive arms. She slithered and slipped into a frozen arabesque with her arms nicely shaped like outstretched wings. At this point I knew that she found the creativity within her to embody the swan. As Odette, she spelled out her struggle through her liquid soliloquy of flawless extensions. I knew then she had understood her character’s struggle, her hesitation, her frustration, her overflowing need to love. She found the Odette in her. Indeed Ballet Philippines has found their Odette.
In the third act, she again emerged from the darkness, this time portraying Odile, the detested adversary. I was quite amused with how she played her character. Parungao succeeded in marking the difference between her two roles. Her seductive wickedness made the pas de deux quite interesting. While she was not able to complete her fouettes, this is not the only measure of success of a performance. It is merely a challenge for her next.
Garry Corpuz played the love-struck prince in this ballet. He carried out his tasks with ease and confidence. He partnered her swan marvelously. His beautiful leaps at times defied gravity. However he took a step back from the drama. I missed the ultimate madness brought about by failure and frustration. They did, after all, take the bitter route of taking their lives.
Swan Lake requires a fleet of reliable swans. The ensemble members fled and created their beautiful patterns. Drilled to perfection, they did deliver the musicality and precision needed by the ballet. All acts were performed with conviction and clarity. It definitely made an impression. The cygnets (played by Katrene San Miguel, Monica Gana, Gia Gequinto and Joanne Santorio) were mechanically efficient.
(WATCH: Excerpts from Ballet Philippines’ Swan Lake)
Lost in the Story
The dancers were nicely showcased in this re-staging by Mr. Nonoy Froilan. However, I did find a few things about the storytelling uncomfortable. Note that I am generally a purist talking about my favorite ballet. The Pas De Trois cast in Act 1 were dressed in simple clothing and blended with the rest of the peasant crowd. Benno is a knight and it is implied the two soloists are supposed to be his and the Prince’s friends. Traditionally they are dressed with small crowns on their heads as seen in other major international productions. Maybe I’m over thinking the ballet but I also did not understand why the Prince would have a mini pas de deux with a particular peasant instead of fleeting encounters.
The re-staging took a different direction, seemingly largely inspired by American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Von Rothbart is played by two different dancers. One portrays the shape shifter and the other a handsome man who dabbles in dark magic. Von Rothbart charms Odette and casts a spell on her making her a part of his beautiful collections of swans. The curse can only be broken by a vow of true love. To gain more power and to ensure that his Swan is forever his, he tricks the Prince (who had at this time already discovered Odette) into marrying Odile. Similarly Ballet Philippines restaged it in the same way. The big difference is how he dances his way to his victory. In the ABT version, Rothbart arrives in the Prince’s ball with Odile. His unexpected arrival is met with skepticism and confusion and he introduces himself through a captivating solo. Often times this scene is called the Gigolo’s Solo, where he manages to use his charm and his magic to command the princesses while leaving them almost hypnotized. He even controls the room and as the final musical climax comes, jumps into the seat beside the queen. He allows Odile to execute the art of seduction.
In Ballet Philippines’ version, Rothbart arrives also with Odile but joins the Spanish delegation when the royal parties perform. I couldn’t find any reason why a stranger would join a different delegation when the concept of the group dances was to show national differentiation. In other versions, Rothbart enters with the Spanish delegation. Moreover, he ends up talking to the queen as if they were best friends. How could an uninvited guest end up in such a prime spot? While it did not cause breakdown to the storytelling, it did create a whole conversation for those who are familiar with the ballet.
While I enjoyed watching Act 3, I was silently wishing that Ballet Philippines could have used the more dynamic version of the divertissement with the character dances done on pointe.
On a positive note, the extensive coaching of ballet icons Nonoy Froiilan and Edna Vida definitely translated into effective nuances adding depth to the dancers’ individual performances. Their valuable input surely helped in ensuring that their technique was encapsulated in satiating artistry. There were important mimes and highlights that were done very clearly. Noteworthy were the casting of the spell, the transformation of Rothbart and the scene where Odette tells the Prince not to kill Rothbart because she will be killed in the process.
The ballet closed with a bittersweet ending, with Odette and her Prince sacrificing their lives for love. Their sacrifice was strong enough to conquer Von Rothbart’s evil. Similarly, in this ballet, the artists’ sacrifice and hard work was also strong enough to give the audience enough to savor. There is reason to be thankful for taking on this classic.
Swan Lake is something that audiences should experience at least once in a lifetime. More importantly, it is a ballet that dancers should dance at least one in their lifetime. Their flights of fancy materialized and left feathery happiness for everyone to enjoy. This time art conquers all.
Photography by Erica Jacinto