The power behind Boston Ballet's thoroughly traditional yet finely tuned "Swan Lake" (2004) lies in the fact that it takes Tchaikovsky's great cup-runneth-over score not just as its inspiration but as its thematic and structural guide. Choreographed by artistic director Mikko Nissinen after the 1895 version by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, this version of the popular four-act classic is all about musicality - of the dancers as much, if not more, as of the instruments in the orchestra pit.
Hence, when the dancing soars, so does the production. The converse is true when it falls flat.
Last night, Larissa Ponomarenko in the dual role of Odette/Odile, could literally make your heart sing - and later weep - with her tremu lous beats, off-kilter arabesques, and limpid broken arms-cum-wings as she, as the Swan Queen, fell hard and fast for Prince Siegfried (Roman Rykine) - and then crumbled, like a leaf underfoot, at his unintended betrayal.
Like Nissinen's choreography, which builds from the score out, Ponomarenko shapes her movements from deep inside; what you see is, in essence, the resolution of an impulse. Her fluttering arms arise from a tension in the small of her back, and her boy, arcing sideways in Rykine's arms, becomes a geometric construct - a line of ash cutting through the air.
As Odile - the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart's daughter masquerading as Odette to snag Siegfried in Act III - Ponomarenko is as steely as an ice pick. Yet she plays the part with passion, too. This Odile is a lascivious come-on artist, not merely black to the core. Indeed, there's beauty in her machinations - even if she does fall out at the end of her 32 fouettes.
Alas, the same plaudits can't always be applied to Rykine's dancing. Act I of this "Swan Lake" is largely a snore, with Rykine doing a lot of staring off into the distance, and landing his tours jete with a thump and stuck-out chin. Indeed, it's not until he's paired with Ponomarenko as Swan Queen, in Act II and then IV, that his strength - as a partner - shines. He's then gallant and sensitive, a bulwark against her shuddering.
Even the pas de trois in Act I - danced by Lia Cirio, Melissa Hough, and James Whiteside - doesn't get the pace going. Cirio and Whiteside, in particular, just can't seem to fill out the music, despite Whiteside's imposing (though somewhat wooden) presence.
Yet Nissinen works magic with the corps as a whole. They shine as the Swans protecting their Queen, executing their unison moves with impeccable timing, as they now criss-cross like ripples on a lake, or close in after Ponomarenko slips into their midst, as much a wall against danger as the Red Sea crashing.
Pavel Gurevich as Von Rothbart is at once dashing and a menace. He rises from the mist all gnarly limbs and smooth stag leaps, proffering Ponomarenko as Odile as the perfect mate for Siegfried with a wink and a whisper to the Queen, Siegfried's henpecking mother (Bonnie Mathis). You don't hate this Von Rothbart; he's too attractive and in some ways vulnerable. Gurevich embodies the complexities with panache.
The divertissements of Act III - far-away visitors executing a Spanish dance, Neapolitan dance, Czardas, and Mazurka - seem to come out of left field, despite the snappy presentation of the Neapolitan couple, Misa Kuranaga and Joel Prouty. Nissinen has added a rather dreary pas de cinq here as well.
But with Rykine partnering Ponomarenko in Act IV, you're left with both an ache and a sense of justice. Love - musically, lyrically, romantically portrayed - triumphs after all.