When a sensational dancer first steps onstage, it's as exciting for me as for an astronomer discovering a nova. Zachary Hench gave such a moment when he flashed his star quality stepping out as Prince Siegfried in Christopher Wheeldon's production of Swan Lake in 2004. Newly commissioned by Pennsylvania Ballet, it was a million-dollar gamble I hope has paid off in real money as much as it does in artistic quality and innovation.
I reviewed that premiere, but looking back on it, I did not fully appreciate its value. Now, through artistic director Ángel Corella's clarifying lens, I saw flash after flash of brilliant dancing from the entire cast. It's gold worthy of Fort Knox, on view in a two-weekend run at the Academy of Music.
Thursday evening, Hench opened Swan Lake's fourth showing. This is said to be his final appearance with the company. But his poetic profile, carriage, and miraculous leapability look too much at their prime for these to be his retirement performances.
I've seen many Swan Lakes, including Matthew Bourne's gorgeously campy gay version. But Wheeldon's keen choreography, along with Jason Fowler's elegantly understated staging, is the most postmodern, self-reflexive, and soul-stirring ever.
It is Siegfried's 21st birthday, after all, and Wheeldon's contemporary hand follows the fluffily frosted 1875 original in its iconic Petipa/Ivanov 1895 revision, smoothing it to marbled perfection. And although it hews quite faithfully to Tchaikovsky's music, surgical editing of some incidental sections makes it more coherent. Beatrice Jona Affron led the orchestra in an excellent performance that included outstanding violin (Luigi Mazzoli), trumpet, and harp solos.
This Swan Lake begins and ends with pastiches of Degas-styled ballerinas warming up while enduring the attentions of top-hatted gentleman patrons, fended off by the principal male dancer (Hench). It slow-burns into rehearsal scenes, all Wheeldon's, until the French doors in Adrianne Lobel's stunning set open, drawing you into the full ballet.
As Odette/Odile, Lauren Fadeley brought a soignée quality to her arm and hand movements, and to the clean placement of her point shoes, whether on the stage or some imagined spot in the air behind Hench's head while in arabesque penché. Her tours and demeanor as Odette were luminous, especially when she deflected the prince from firing his silver crossbow, a birthday present from his mother, the queen. But Fadeley could have been a tad darker as seductress Odile.
Heart-stopping performances: Amy Aldridge reprised her gasp-worthy Russian Dance striptease and Jermel Johnson his even more controlled, more elastic entrechats. James Ihde was a demonic Von Rothbart.
The icing on this sleek cake was the cygnet pas de quatre. You know the one, with the swans, arm over arm, crisscrossing in uptempo tour de force line-dancing, speed-demon battements frappés, and that swanlike head bending side to side and to and fro, here danced in perfect synch by Marria Cosentino, Evelyn Kocak, Mayara Pineiro, and Elizabeth Mateer.
Presented by the Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. At 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 2 and 8 p.m. March 14, and 2 p.m. March 15.