[DANCE] Swan Lake is like a good Western. It's an excellent study in contrasts—black/white, good/evil, duty/surrender. Christopher Stowell's Oregon Ballet Theatre production, with two pairs of dancers sharing the leads in alternating performances—Alison Roper and Yuka Iino as Odette/Odile, the White and Black Swans, and Ruben Martin and Artur Sultanov dancing Prince Siegfried—was just that: a contrast of night and day. Full of some the most persistent images in all of dance (boy meets swan/boy loses swan), nothing smacks of "ballet" more than Swan Lake; it is redolent of the art form as we know it.
Saturday evening's performance (Martin/Iino), which was mechanically executed with the minimum of spark between the leads, but Sunday's matinee (Roper/Sultanov) was a feast of visual spectacle and well-oiled, kinetic fine-tuning. Immediately in Act I, the energy and fluidity of Stowell's choreography felt more focused, more liquid and with more genuine spark. OBT's Sultanov, as the young prince, had a looser, more charismatic presence than Martin, a guest dancer from the San Francisco Ballet. In fact, the je-ne-sais-quoi chemistry between Roper and Sultanov was urgent. While Martin may have had better chops, Sultanov connected. Sultanov had a Candide-like guilelessness that propelled the role forward, allowing us to believe along with him that this crazy swan-love was not only possible, but indeed reasonable. As Odette/Odile, Roper had an enticing, hovering sensuality and patience, supple port de bras—exquisite "swan arms," wing-like at the wrist—and an intrinsic sense of nuance (tucking her head into Sultanov's shoulder, fingers tracing the shape of Siegfried's face) that made all the difference. She balanced on the fulcrum between coy and naive, without aloof fragility (which Iino tended toward), delicate without being self-conscious (although I appreciated Iino's Russian-influenced rigor), elegant and gracefully measured in the partnered sequences.
For Sultanov and Roper, acting and nuance trumped dancerly flash, and in the work's denouement—Odette skedaddling away en pointe (forever to remain a swan) and Siegfried devasted, crumpled—you get a hint of why masterworks like this continue to move us. Very human work (even work ensconced in 19th-century overupholstered romanticism) deserves passionate human interpretation, and Sultanov and Roper did grand justice to Stowell's reverential, solid update of the classic. On the one hand, it can be about steps and solos and strings of applause-producing fouettés; on the other, it can be about conveying the universal gravity of loving, dreaming, living and dying.
Oregon Ballet Theatre, Keller Auditorium, 7:30 pm Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, June 10-11.