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Karen Kain has shown that the National Ballet can put 24 women in white tutus and make the audience melt because of the way these swans epitomize female friendship.Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada

  • Title: Swan Lake
  • Music by: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Director: Karen Kain
  • Dancers: Jurgita Dronina, Harrison James, Spencer Hack, Naoya Ebe, Jeannine Haller, Miyoko Koyasu
  • Company: The National Ballet of Canada
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: 2022
  • COVID-19 measures: Masks are mandatory in auditorium

National Ballet of Canada’s sumptuously tragic new Swan Lake debuted Friday at the Four Seasons Centre after more than three years of preening. Karen Kain directed and staged the Russian classic, incorporating both the 1895 authoritative choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, as well as movement from the 1967 Erik Bruhn update. Kain herself marked an early-career milestone with a breakout performance in a 1971 National Ballet staging of the latter.

Karen Kain’s Swan Lake is a final fitting act for Canada’s most celebrated ballerina

Her greatest accomplishment in this Swan Lake may be the corps. She has shown that the National Ballet can put 24 women in white tutus and make the audience melt, not only because of the beauty and precision in their steps, but also because of the way these swans epitomize female friendship, rather than an ideal born of the male gaze.

Narratively, the most successful changes come at the ballet’s opening and very end. While some traditional stagings still present the prelude as Prince Siegfried’s dream about a beautiful maiden transformed into an ethereal swan, Kain instead opens the ballet with four cavorting young women in white, including the heroine Odette, who is captured by a menacing wizard. Jurgita Dronina, dancing in her tenth production of Swan Lake, performed the starring role on opening night with strength and incomparable grace.

From the first chords of Tchaikovsky, it was clear that this time, the ballet would not only be a tragic romance, but also a story about friendship and innocence lost.

The Act 1 curtain rises on a grand European garden party as imagined by Czech artist Gabriela Tylesova, with sets and costumes suggesting the scene could be set anywhere from Italy during the Renaissance to Paris during the Belle Époque.

Giant abstract roses in dusty pink and lilac frame the stage, with an oversized crooked gate, seemingly plucked from a Tim Burton cartoon, hanging from the catwalks. The mise-en-scène is a birthday party for Prince Siegfried (Harrison James), and his friends and family are in high spirits.

The welcome warmth of this scene was a high point of the production. The party is normally a formal divertissement, but this one felt spontaneous. Sure, there happened to be backward fish dives, but there were also friends mingling; men danced together and women twirled like girls at recess.

Naoya Ebe took a gasp-inducing turn as the prince’s best friend, Benno. For better or worse, his double tours and cabriole kick jumps were more death-defying than those executed by the prince. (He is one of six performers who will take on the role of Siegfried over the course of Swan Lake’s run, and Odette will also be portrayed by a rotating half-dozen.)

Ebe danced the traditional pas de trois with performers playing the prince’s younger two sisters, who, while barely distinguishable from other guests by their tiny tiaras, added refreshing whimsy to the proceedings. Later, the brooding prince wanders off to a dark lake, where he meets Odette, who because of the wizard’s curse spends her days as a swan and regains her human form at sunset.

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Harrison James and Jurgita Dronina, long-time onstage partners, in Swan Lake.Courtesy of The National Ballet of Canada

Dronina and James, long-time onstage partners, conveyed not only steps but genuine affection. He knows the length of her leg like the back of his hand. That was clear every time he placed her toe on the ground. Their pas de deux were full of penchée bends for Odette. He held her hands from behind as she leaned her torso forward and then pulled herself upright with abs of steel. I say this as someone who attempted to take a “foam roller abs” class with Dronina on Instagram during the pandemic: never call this ballerina a dainty swan.

Predictably, James and Dronina’s dancing was the best thing about the post-intermission ballroom scene, when the evil wizard, Rothbart, turns up with the black swan Odile – who, like an ill-advised right swipe on Tinder, lures the prince away from his true love.

The timeless plot twist of Swan Lake is that the same ballerina dances both Odette and Odile. But, in this staging, the ball is a masquerade. Regrettably, the guests turn up in an over-the-top mishmash of costumes. One wears a unicorn outfit, another is dressed as the Queen of Hearts, and Benno inexplicably has on a bird hat. They looked like characters in search of Aurora’s wedding who had crashed the wrong ballet party. A case is made that the prince thinks the ravishing woman in black is Odette, not realizing his mistake until it’s too late.

Dronina’s Odile wasn’t so much seductive as she was assertive. Once she whipped out those 32 fouettés and the crowd went wild, she and James enjoyed a short-lived, rapturous partnership. All too soon, flashing strobe lights and a crescendo from the well-led orchestra portended doom. When the swans reappeared by the lake, grouping themselves by fours and threes, it was as if they were already grieving for their friend and her lover, who shows up on the shore to duel with Rothbart.

Tylesova’s costume for Rothbart gives the wizard (sometimes called “the evil genius”) long, tentacle-like wings, which the dancer (Spencer Hack) must manipulate like puppets on strings. During the final tussle, when Hack attempted to wrench Dronina away from James, he dropped her onstage. It seemed as if this was because his costume got in the way. Thankfully, the company said she’s okay.

Hopefully, each of the five forthcoming pairs of princes and swan queens will have time to rehearse that crucial hand-off. Notably, principal dancer Siphesihle November will partner with guest artist Maria Kochetkova, a globe-trotting, petite Russian wunderkind. For those still planning a trip to Swan Lake, that’s the couple to watch.

Kain’s staging will likely be with the company for decades to come, and each time the curtain comes down, it will be Odette left standing – not throwing herself off a cliff or turned into a mechanical swan, as happens in other productions, but on her toes, bouréeing with fortitude.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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