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Sara Mearns and Guillaume Côté in 'Swan Lake', New York City Ballet, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, Feb. 14, 2020.

  • Swan Lake
  • Choreography by: Peter Martins after Petipa, Ivanov and Balanchine
  • Actors: Guillaume Côté (Siegfried), Sara Mearns (Odette/Odile)
  • Company: New York City Ballet
  • Venue: Lincoln Center
  • City: New York

Any number of Swan Lakes give the male lead more to work with than Peter Martins’s 1999 production for New York City Ballet. And yet, international star Guillaume Côté – on an emergency loan from the National Ballet of Canada – made our wishy-washy romantic hero matter.

Martins’s perfunctory story ballets – for the one major company, New York City Ballet, that doesn’t really believe in them – used to be unavoidable. For 35 years, he was the company’s director. But the 73-year-old retired two years ago. (The pressures of #MeToo that gave the world a glimpse of the man’s erratic behaviour toward his charges likely hastened his departure.) So what’s the excuse now?

Swan Lake is the least bad of the lot. In fact, the final lakeside scene, with its resonant corps formations and a mournful lullaby of a pas de deux, leaves you stunned. Gone is the fairy-tale ending for a chilling psychological realism. The love between the swan queen, Odette, and Prince Siegfried may be strong enough to weather a betrayal and break an evil sorcerer’s spell, and still, she leaves.

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Otherwise, though, Martins shrinks the story to unintelligibility. This is not Balanchine’s vaunted abstraction. New York City Ballet’s founder distilled; his successor guts. Siegfried, on whom the drama depends, arrives at his birthday party with so little fanfare that the audience mistakes him for a random straggler – and the danseur noble playing him for a lowly corps member. When he’s not helping his swan queen fly, this prince spends most of his time standing around.

Mearns is one of today’s most exciting, thought-provoking dancers.

With two decades of Siegfrieds behind him, Côté is even interesting standing around. He telegraphs thoughts and feelings with the mere tilt of his head, angle of his gaze, curve of his elegant arms, spread of his fingers, or with a pause. He transforms the ostentation of one-handed partnering – leaving the other hand free to offer up the ballerina as a trophy – into a display of considerate warmth.

He embraces the air beside his skittish bird (Sara Mearns, expansive and remote) while she acclimates herself to his ardour. Côté can be subtle, as when he takes a beat to register Odette’s latest show of diffidence so it sinks in to us, too. And he can be full-bodied, as when the sinister sorcerer emerges from the shadows and seems to draw Côté violently backwards into his vortex.

Mearns, one of today’s most exciting, thought-provoking dancers, also captures the magician’s inescapable magnetism. But her face remains blank. For this outing, she used only the musicality by which she shapes steps to convey character. As Odette, she expatiated in Balanchinean fashion, stretching out metre and moves. As the magician’s dutiful if wicked daughter, the Black Swan, she hit the beat smack on the head.

You’d think the leads’ diametrically opposed approaches would underscore Martins’s vacillations between storytelling and abstraction. Instead, they heighten the drama. The man and the night creature belong to different worlds. They love each other and lose each other anyway.

To Feb. 23. Guillaume Côté only to Feb. 16.

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