Ballet Jörgen Canada co-founder and Artistic Director Bengt Jörgen has created a new version of the classic ballet Swan Lake to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the company he and his life partner Susan Bodie founded in 1987. Even though it’s only the fifth-largest ballet company in the country, Ballet Jörgen tours more than any of its competitors. With an easily portable repertoire and a roster of twenty-five dancers supplemented by local dance students taking on character roles, Ballet Jörgen regularly tours across Canada and the United States. Playing houses both large and small, the company has become known as “Canada’s Local Ballet Company” reaching an average of 40,000 people each year – one third of whom are under the age of 18. This new production of Swan Lake will see thirty-three performances over the coming season. Though Jörgen has retained many of the traditional elements of the Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa original ballet including Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s dramatic score, he has deviated from the standard libretto in several ways. For example, the setting for Jörgen’s Swan Lake is Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the events of the first and third acts take place within the walls of the fortress. Siegfried is the son of the Governor and the “most eligible bachelor in New France.” When he gets angry with his mother for insisting he must marry, Siegfried decides to go off into the woods on his own, borrowing a musket from one of the soldiers guarding the battlements. Never far from the stage, Jörgen himself makes a cameo as Siegfried’s tutor. When Siegfried is confronted by the evil Von Rothbart, the sorcerer is accompanied by a group of sinister henchmen like flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Because showing the forsaken Odette watching Siegfried as he declares his love to the black swan Odile at the ball would add technical complexity, once Odile extracts the promise from Siegfried she laughs in his face and she and Von Rothbart run away in triumph. And in the end, instead of committing suicide by throwing themselves into Swan Lake, Siegfried kills Von Rothbart and, with his death breaking the spell, Odette becomes once again a chaste young maiden.
The company’s youth and ethnic diversity are refreshing. Jörgen is blessed with some very talented, energetic dancers who performed cleanly and with enjoyment. The women were extremely light on their feet making very little noise in their pointe shoes. Jörgen’s choreography for the corps was generally uncomplicated and may not have sufficiently challenged his dancers: it seldom took advantage of Tchaikovsky’s undercurrent melodies and rhythms, preferring instead to sit squarely on the beat (likely to ensure that everyone remained synchronized). The lead role of Odette/Odile was performed by the exquisite Saniya Abilmajineva. Originally from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Abilmajineva trained in Moscow and went on to win medals at international ballet competitions in Berlin, Shanghai and New York. Abilmajineva is sleek as a cat with beautiful arms, gorgeous lines and a supple back. Her preening, unworldly swan queen was utterly bewitching. At the performance I attended, the charismatic Daniel da Silva performed the role of Siegfried. Born and trained in Brazil, da Silva spent two seasons with Ballet BC before joining Ballet Jörgen. Da Silva is both a good actor and a good partner, portraying his princely charms with ease, overshadowed only by his mother the Countess, played by Ballet Jörgen veteran Clea Iveson, who towers above him. Gustavo Hernandez gave the stand-out performance of the night. He played the part of the Jester – another of Jörgen’s innovations – in Act 3 during the ball scene. Hernandez is originally from Cuba and danced with Alicia Alonzo’s famous National Ballet of Cuba. Hernandez’s leaps and ballon were outstanding and his flirtatious dance with the extremely musical Justine Fraser was a definite highlight. The Spanish Dance performed by Cristina Graziano and Yoo Sang Hong also deserves special mention.
At first glance, Robert Doyle’s costumes for the ballet appeared lavish, using a range of intricately embroidered fabrics in complementary shades – especially those for Siegfried’s friends in Act 1. The women’s costumes, however, needed a few more layers of petticoats and/or pantaloons, as it seemed somewhat unchaste to be seeing so much of their legs and undergarments beneath their skirts. Odette’s coterie of swans was clad in stiff tutus paired with white high-necked spandex leotards that were very unforgiving to the female form. Only Abilmajineva’s Odette was permitted a feathered bustier that was much more flattering. Camellia Koo’s sets, composed of grey walls, towers and sentry posts easily manipulated by stagehands to create different scenes, were functional and unobtrusive but could have been more decorative. I believe Jörgen is at his best when he is wholly unique and not trying to live up to larger, better-funded companies – his Anastasia, for example, is far more compelling and interesting because it is entirely of his own design and was created from scratch with his company and its strengths in mind. But Jörgen’s adjustments to the libretto added depth and freshness to the production and I wish that he had continued to stray from the well-trodden path. The choreography for Von Rothbart’s henchmen, for example, was gothic and visually exciting because it deviated from the rest of the ballet’s more-or-less standard fare. Jörgen’s versions of other traditional ballets such as Nutcracker, Cinderella, Coppelia and Romeo & Juliet demonstrate significant originality and ingenuity. But somehow the desire to live up to the grandest and best-known ballet of the classical repertoire constricted Jörgen’s creativity. Ultimately, I have to question whether a chamber version of Swan Lake is even feasible without a more thorough reworking or deconstruction. Swan Lake is a huge ballet and Jorgen’s pared-down version, despite some excellent dancing, failed to impress.