Momoko Burbine danced Odette/Odile and Klevis Tafaj portrayed Prince Siegfried in Ajkun Ballet Theatre's condensed "Swan Lake" at The Egg.
The region’s performing arts saw two triumphs on Saturday night.
1. The Egg, Albany’s premiere stage, reopened with its first show since March 2020.
2. Ajkun Ballet performed “Swan Lake” beautifully there.
The first, of course, offers a glimmer of what is to come – theaters opened with masked and socially distanced patrons – even with the pandemic still raging.
The second is amazing as the Ajkun Ballet Theatre often doesn’t perform well – appearing as a ragtag group of dancers of all abilities whom its Artistic Director Chiara Ajkun tires to shape into a scintillating, cohesive classical ballet ensemble.
The company performs every summer at The Egg, with 2020 as the exception. When I saw the company on the calendar for Saturday, I was skeptical, but felt an obligation to go. Allowing myself to only go to the shows I know have promise isn’t fair to me or my few readers.
But as soon as Momoko Burbine stepped on stage as Odette/Odile, the enchanted swan who seeks true love from the capricious Prince Siegfried, I was the one enchanted. She was a near perfect Odette/Odile, the most challenging role that any ballerina dances as she must play two characters – the sweet, fearful Odette and the evil, scheming Odile.
As Odette, Burbine was delicate – the flutter of her foot as Siegfried, danced by Klevis Tafaj, twirled her, spoke of her fragility. This tiny dancer melted and swooned into the Tafaj who lifted her with tenderness and ease. And of course the provocative and lush Tchaikovsky score ramped up the impassioned emotion.
They convinced the audience that the bond they sealed at the lake could not be severed. Of course, we were wrong.
As Odile, Burbine transformed – she was sharp with a plastered sinister smile. (That was not necessary and a little distracting.) She also faltered on the ballet’s most steely technical test – the 32 fouettes. I counted 25 rotations of the leg-whipping step.
That’s ok because even top ballerina struggle with that. And all was forgiven as she returned to as the desperate Odette who realizes Siegfried betrayed her with Odile.
Burbine was not the only amazing dancer. Telmen Munkherdene as the Jester was also superb. As Siegfried’s entertainer and confidant, he was a whirling, leaping marvel who was a pleasure to watch every time he took the stage.
Because there was no intermission, which seems to be a COVID-19 precaution at all the theaters, Ajkun trimmed down the ballet to the essential storytelling segments – without the incidental dancing. She did, happily, preserve the divertissements at the ball.
But condensing the ballet required chopping up the score, which at times was jarring.
Also annoying was the continuous mid-ballet bows, cutting off the action and the magic. It’s old-fashioned, a relic from the days when Russia was king of the artform, and unsettling for American audiences who feel forced to applaud.
Also, I’m not thrilled with Ajkun’s ending. “Swan Lake” is ballet’s great tragedy, on par with “Romeo and Juliet.” But Ajkun gave it a happy ending with Siegfried killing the sorcerer, freeing Odette. Thus the two live happily ever after. The tragic ending, though sad, provides resonance that the sweet finale simply can’t.
While the bowing and the ending need to go, the dancing, especially that of Burbine, lives on.