NEW YORK -- American Ballet Theatre took a Dickensian twist at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center when a tale of two companies emerged in its final performances of "Swan Lake."
Despite ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie's cohesive theatrical approach to the familiar ballet classic, the ensembles couldn't have been more different in comparing the matinee, featuring Michele Wiles and David Hallberg, and the evening gala, fluttering around the retirement of international superstar Nina Ananiashvili, dancing with Angel Corella.
Wiles was one of seven prominent ballerinas on the ABT roster to exhibit her prowess in the grueling double role of Odette/Odile. Her youthful approach drove Wiles' performance, particularly in the third act, where she could draw on a confident athleticism, with long balances, whipping pique turns and alternating single and double fouettes.
Although the signature porte bras in her second-act Odette were too unfocused to be hugely effective, her final moments in the fourth act turned Odette into a modern-day American heroine, determined to break von Rothbart's spell by sacrificing herself.
Unfortunately, the lack of spiritual connection between the acts seemed to transfer onto the cast. Although David Hallberg (Siegfried) was an authoritative and princely figure with his superior lines, the rest of the ensemble seemed to be strangely flat, from a swan corps that could be messy at times to solos (such as the first act pas de trios) that seemed forced. Even Zack Brown's opulent sets, more operatic than balletic with a cascading series of trademark staircases, and costumes appeared to be no more than cardboard cutouts.
That was all transformed for the evening performance, where ABT unleashed a first-rate cast, beginning with 95-year-old American ballet icon Frederic Franklin as the tutor; Georgina Parkinson, former ballerina at The Royal Ballet and ABT ballet mistress and coach, as the Queen Mother; and Victor Barbee, ABT associate director and top notch character dancer, as the Master of Ceremonies.
They added a heady sense of history, and the supporting players, including a flamboyant Corella (Siegfried), a delectably nefarious Marcelo Gomes (von Rothbart), a swarm of terrific solos and, yes, a wonderfully coherent group of swans followed suit.
Apparently they were all swept up in the atmosphere surrounding Ananiashvili's final performance with the company on June 27. (She will be heading back to her native Georgia to head a ballet company there.)
It was apparent from her first entrance that Ananiashvili had come to make this night a memorable one. With her darkly beautiful and soulful face and long, slender arms and legs, she was the embodiment of Odette. Despite arms that could turn to liquid wings and bourrees that seemed to skim the stage, Ananiashvili was never weak or vulnerable but instead conveyed a poetic strength.
That was carried over into the third act, where her Odile heightened that strength. She and Corella pushed each other through an escalating balletic display during the Black Swan Pas de Deux and only deviated once from her multi-layered portrayal (and the set choreography) when Gomes tossed her to Corella at the end. It was like an exclamation point to a bravura episode that sent the audiences into wild outbursts of applause.
This was a performance that will become the stuff of legend in ballet lore. Ananiashvili was rewarded with a parade of company members who placed single white roses at her feet, followed by a double-barreled burst of confetti and numerous curtain calls where she caught bouquets with one hand (and was hit by another).
She is 46.
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 8, 2009) American Ballet Theatre ballerina Michele Wiles' name was misspelled in this story as originally published July 7, 2009.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .