Might Sara Mearns be the best Odette/Odile dancing today? Like her heroine Makarova, she can do it all.
Swan Lake is a signature role for her for good reason. She is the vessel in which the story holds and by which it holds true: it achieves its considerable dramatic potentials through her. She is the crucible in which the tragedy is fired. Lucky us to be seeing her give her artistry so freely, and in service of Tchaikovsky’s visions of beauty.
I won’t lie though, I did miss the mime, absent from Martins’ version. I imagine Mearns would have touched me even more had it been included but that’s not to say she suffered by its absence: dance pure, and dance alive is her register of expression. It is her language through which she elevates art, creates poetry.
She has, along with manifest other talents, perhaps the sweetest use of hands and arms from any dancer I have seen, the lower body strong and sure, the arms a filigree of lightness beguiling the viewer. Those qualities alone would be enough to mark her a dancer of highest distinction but there is more. There is simply put, understated elegance and class from each gesture and movement.
Even when static, her power over us holds true. A supported arabesque is arrow-straight, picture perfect, arms reaching and yearning as one reviewer has said of her, ‘to infinity’. Had it been frozen, had it been sculpture it would have been an object of beauty by itself, but blink, and you’d miss that pose moving into another seamless moment of beauty, the whole adding up to a cogent line of grace.
Like the sculptor, the dancer spends hundreds of hours to settle on a presentation they can leave as finished. (An artwork is never finished, but abandoned.) One senses Mearns is never finished with Swan Lake, nor Swan Lake with her. I imagine each night grants fresh insights and approaches. The mark of a great dancer.
Odette is about more than just giving us Petipa – or Martins modifications thereof. We must feel the story. Mearns feels the story and thus do we too. Her face registers every flicker of torment and suffering and every transport of love. (I think hers was the best ‘ballet embrace’ I have ever seen. As Tyler Angle held her one could see the relief and comfort, the love. I won’t forget her expression for a long time.) Partly her dramatic strengths come from her intelligent eyes which project the drama to the back of the house: a glance may convey from Odette, pathos, glimmering hope, or from Odile, glee, seduction.
A party of young girls around me were debating at what point Odette is human, and at what point Swan. Some dancers give us more Swan than princess, they shade the supernatural qualities of the enchantment or emphasise the aloof. Mearns’ Odette was very human, and more, she was a feeling, living person. We felt her plight.
And yet the magic came through the same: hints of magic. We saw the swan – in her astonishing bourees, in that that same magical port-de-bras, in the way her being assumed the role. When she breaks Siegfried’s embrace, I truly saw the whisper of wings. Incredible artistry.
As Odile -as good as her Odette – Mearns excelled. Fewer moments to say ‘wow’ to here: Odile is not supposed to take our breath away as much as seduce us. Critics would note that Ms Mearns might have ended the famous and demanding circus trick of 32 fouettes with pique turns, but I don’t care, it was great. Ms Mearns might have been a little upset at that, I am sure I detected so from her shoulders (?!) during the turns, but really, it was minor.
Add to her dramatic facility, her gorgeous arms, her tight footwork, and you have what a lady I met in line said is (and here I agree) a perfect ballerina. A perfect ballerina through which the noble truth of the libretto came alive. (And yes, I know it is modified, Siegfried lives, she stays a swan, but it worked.)
I would love to see her in other versions. I say this because some of the choreography was a bit new to me or even not too my liking. The pas de trois in Act I (Erica Pereira, Brittany Pollack, Antonio Carmena) had some very exuberant arms which surprised me, but Erica Pereira’s dancing was marked by wonderful light feet.
Act II’s PDD may have had that rapturous embrace but it ends not with a slow pairing, but an ebullient up-tempo celebration. It lost some of the repose and romance for me. That pas must make us believe that like Mimi and Rudolfo in La Boheme, the pair have fallen in love in the matter of a few enchanted moments. I felt it moved from fear to togetherness a little too quickly for me. Siegfried has his hands on her basically from the word go, and too, I missed the unsupported pirouettes timed to the music as Odette evades his chase.
Tyler Angle (chasing) was not quite helped by his bright blue costume. The costumes made me miss the Royal Ballet’s more ‘verismo’ staging. And on the same subject, compared to that and some Russian versions, the court dances did feel a little under-populated, as if many had RSVPed with ‘sorry, but…’. No matter. The principals held our attention, Angle sailing through grand jetes, Mearns dazzling. Angle’s ballet-run into the wings at the end of Act III was great until he hit the wings, where it became a jog, but overall he was good, despite not being given much to do. The curse of Siegrieds all over.
Given much to do, and at a pace far from a jog, were the tempi the City Ballet’s orchestra were given to produce under Daniel Capps. The adverts for this piece suggest Swan Lake displays NYCB’s signature speed and attack and that it did, but it may as above been Mearns undoing in those fouettes?
Certainly the onstage corps de ballet coped well, my first time seeing this illustrious body in person. One sensed the endless pursuit of perfection, the marked athleticism, and also the rather startling homogeneity of female form from them. One felt the hard work, the drilling of technique and saw the very high standard of address and execution from all. A showbiz ebullience and that signature attack seem to be the metier here. Of particular note were the dancers in Martins’ pas de quatre (Megan Fairchild, Tiler Peck, Ana Sophie Scheler). With dancers of that calibre no wonder the coda given by the three at the end of their divertissement drew applause.
Applause too for the four swans (Jacqueline Bologna, Baily Jones, Alexa Maxwell, Claire von Enck) who gave us one of the tightest cygnet dance I have ever seen. So too acclaim for Daniel Ulbricht‘s Jester who managed to be likeable and technically excellent in all his various jumps and displays.
Strong dancing from all then, but it was Mearns who will stay in my mind. Her look as she left Siegfried forever, their gentle embraces, those arms, and her silent expressions…enchanting.