American BALLET THEATRE didn't create dreadful productions of the three full-length Tchaikovsky classics simply by blind obedience to tradition. No, in revising and restaging "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker" and "The Sleeping Beauty," artistic director Kevin McKenzie worked hard at cluttering the narratives with bizarre new plot twists and special effects, even sometimes messing with the music via resequencing and interpolation.
But Thursday, when his 8-year-old "Swan Lake" returned to Southern California for the start of a five-performance run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, his greatest crimes (or sins, if you consider the genuine 1895 "Swan Lake" to be holy writ) were those committed against his dancers.
Here were artists with enough talent, training and dedication to rise above the weaknesses of even this production. But they remained far below their potential because the company's current level of coaching left them there. Even company ballet master Georgina Parkinson, who should have been helping the others, needed coaching herself in the mime role of the Queen Mother that would have enabled her to ascend and descend staircases regally instead of looking desperately ill at ease.
Forget the unfortunate corps unisons Thursday, especially in the opening birthday party. The problem went much deeper and affected the company's finest soloists. Sascha Radetsky, for instance, had an exciting command of the steps in his expanded duties as the Prince's friend, Benno. But instead of an elegant flow, his dancing in the pas de trois proved bumpy, his partnering even rougher.
The McKenzie edition has two of the story's villain, Rothbart, and both were in trouble. As the more grotesque incarnation of evil, Vitali Krauchenka swirled a long, unmanageable cape that snarled on the scenery and also chopped off one of the ram's horns on his head long before his death scene. Supposedly a master seducer, the sleeker Rothbart of Jared Matthews became technically unreliable in the ballroom sequence that required him to manipulate all the foreign princesses a la the Matthew Bourne "Swan Lake."
Great guest stars coached in other companies for other productions have made the central roles in the McKenzie version thrilling -- and occasionally you could see how Michele Wiles as the Swan Queen and David Hallberg as the Prince might match their distinction if given enlightened assistance. Wiles can play deception, so her Odile had a powerful dramatic impetus as well as fabulous technique: spectacular balances, triple fouettes, high-speed piques.
But deception won't work in Odile's solo because the Prince is nowhere in sight, so her dancing there had nothing but technical exactitude and beautiful line -- and the same was true of her Odette. Yes, you could see anguish in her face from time to time, but she never pulled it into her body to become an icon of Romantic suffering. She seemed to know exactly what was needed but couldn't get there. Admirable, certainly. Memorable, no.
McKenzie's action plan often left the Prince with unplayable emotional transitions. But Hallberg danced with impressive nobility and sincerity, usually more passive than impassioned and never quite at the imposing scale of the music, but always secure in technique and skillful in his partnering.
The other satisfactions Thursday included the fleet, stylish dancing of Maria Riccetto and, especially, Yuriko Kajiya in the pas de trois, the buoyancy of Craig Salstein and Luis Ribagorda in the Neapolitan dance and Alexei Agoudine's authority as the leader of the Czardas.
Zach Brown's sets sometimes looked cramped -- perhaps because performing the ballet with only one intermission meant always having the lakeside set up behind the palace. (The shift into the final scene also required McKenzie to replace the majestic original choreography with nervous and pretty much useless swan-flitting on the forestage.)
Charles Barker conducted a pickup orchestra that needed every bit as much coaching as the dancers.
American Ballet Theatre
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.
When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Sunday
Price: $25 to $115
Contact: (213) 365-3500 or www.musiccenter.org