February 14, 2011
“A ‘Swan’ Of Complex Shades”
by Alastair Macaulay
“Yet Friday’s opening-night performance of the two central roles was exemplary. Sara Mearns as Odette-Odile and Jared Angle as Prince Siegfried ignored not only “Black Swan” but also most of the mannerisms encrusted upon “Swan Lake” by recent generations of interpreters. Ms. Mearns and Mr. Angle lead me back to much of what moved me in the ballet decades ago.
These virtues are true of Ms. Mearns but on a larger and more complex scale. If you want to understand why “Swan Lake” is a more profound work than “Black Swan” suggests, there is no better performance to start with than hers. Without an ideal physique (her shoulders are high) or a defeat-all-rivals technique, the beauty of her performance is that she guides you to larger things. The way her face takes the light and her eyes pay burning attention to others onstage gives her a movie-star luminosity, and though she can’t quite whip off fouetté turns as fast as Fayçal Karoui’s (sometimes inconsiderately fast) conducting asks, in every other respect hers is a multifaceted technique that superbly contrasts tight-closed positions with wide-open ones, rapid sparkling details with large shapes.
The most profound pleasure of her dancing derives from her phrasing to music. The start of one phrase, the end of another, the felicitous timing of steps tiny and large (piercing into the music’s beat) show musicality on many levels. The finest dancers always seem to have time, but Ms. Mearns — a naturally dramatic performer — fills that time with meaning. The lingering opening of one phrase as the Swan Queen Odette adds a nuance of tragic reluctance, while her scintillating rhythm as the illusionary Odile acts as another layer of dazzle to the music’s orchestration.
Her spine is no less eloquent. It’s tempting just to marvel at the phenomenal way it yields or bends, but actually with her these points are always dramatic. As Odile she ends one rapid solo sequence by arriving in Siegfried’s arms in an astonishingly rich backbend, telling him, bewilderingly, at the same moment that she belongs to him and that she is straining to get away. As Odette similar backbends are charged with a more personal sincerity: we feel the character’s supreme need and fluctuations of hope and despair, never monotonously expressed but always moving on in the journey of the narrative.
Then there is the heroic scale of her dancing. Her line lights up the stage space like a search beam. After Odile and Siegfried first meet, they sweep off together into the wings, but Ms. Mearns pauses in an imperious arabesque so suspenseful that it makes you impatient for her return.
There is no sentimentality to Ms. Mearns’s Odette. She doesn’t make the widespread mistake of looking searchingly into Siegfried’s face as he unfolds her at the start of the “White Swan” pas de deux; the drama begins with her reluctance even to meet his gaze. During this pas de deux, however, she takes one fleeting glance into his eyes, and then another, and each is a punctuation mark that perfectly illustrates the gradual progress of what her dancing has already demonstrated. Every time she withdraws from his arms, we understand her diffidence; every time she returns to him, we feel the courage and hope that motivate her.”