The ballet Swan Lake can be a tense psychological drama--an exploration of love and the human soul--or a foolish yuck-fest indulging in the taboo of bestiality. What gave flight to Ballet Idaho's production of Pyotr Tchaikovsky's beloved piece, performed in conjunction with Boise Philharmonic at the Morrison Center April 12, was how it restored the ballet's Russian soul.
Swan Lake is the tragic account of Prince Siegfried's romance with Odette, the queen of the swans, and their struggle against the malicious wizard Von Rothbart and the conventions of marriage and familial duty, as personified by Prince Siegfried's mother.
Spoiler alert: The main characters die. Odette (played by Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti) commits suicide after a failed reconciliation with Siegfried (Andrew Taft) by diving from a cruel-looking winding stone staircase on stage left. In an unexpected twist--a deviation from the original plot--Siegfried dives to his death after her. Their tandem deaths are almost an afterthought, given the coincidental death of Rothbart (played with over-dramatic flair by James Brougham) and the whirlwind of ballerinas dressed to evoke waterfowl dancing in the forefront.
Rather than stressing the deaths of the ballet's two main characters, Ballet Idaho Artistic Director Peter Anastos brought a more subdued, and arguably refined, sense of tragedy. Odette and Siegfried are victims in this story, and not avatars for the problem of man-beast love. At the thematic center of this interpretation is the covetousness of both Rothbart and Siegfried's mother, played by Sarah Morris--as one protects his flock and the other single-mindedly seeks to secure her son's marriage.
The famous Black Swan scene in the third act (Odile, the black swan, is played by Adrienne Kerr) could have, as in conventional readings of Swan Lake, stressed the human weakness of Siegfried and the powerful magic of Rothbart. But instead, it revealed the manipulative methods of Rothbart and the Queen Mother. As Siegfried and Odile flirt in the forefront, the twin nemeses observe their machinations at work from a shady corner off stage right.
In an imperfect production weighed down with a huge cast and ankle-bitten with minor slips and stumbles, Taft and Affrunti gave standout performances. Affrunti's pantomiming was executed with conversational fluency and elan. The Russian dancers drew the ballet out of the realm of the purely mythical and attached it to a geographical location, albeit a huge one.
But in the margin between the psychological and fantastical elements of the story is its soul. The great success of Ballet Idaho's production was its ability to present Swan Lake for what it is: a human drama about the consequences of influence and manipulation.