All it took was a chance encounter inside the flagship UNIQLO store on Fifth Avenue to land me in the audience of an American Ballet Theatre performance of that famous Tchaikovsky ballet, Swan Lake.
On June 21st, I was on the second floor of that UNIQLO, passing through the center corridor to get to the men’s section for my window shopping of the polyester polo shirts and shorts that Novak Djokovic uses on the ATP tour. Airtight packaging containing the brand’s signature summer line of AIRism innerwear lined the blue-lit walls of that corridor. For the men: AIRism crew necks, V-necks, boxer briefs, and steteco on the left side of that corridor; for the women: AIRism camisoles, crew necks, V-necks, and hiphuggers on the right side of that same corridor. Also to my right: Polina Semionova. Sort of.
To be more precise, it was a 30 second video of Semionova promoting AIRism. The video ran on an infinite loop on the monitors at both ends of the corridor, and with the neon-blue lights and the immense stock of shirts between the monitors, the corridor had a Nineteen Eighty-Four vibe to it.
Semionova, dressed in a white AIRism camisole (obviously) with a gray sweater draped over her shoulders, was sewing a ballet slipper in her apartment. Her white and gray cat sat on the windowsill next to her, and Semionova’s eyes drifted from the slipper, to the cat, and then to the Manhattan skyline beyond the window. The peacefulness of the scene gave Semionova an aura of tranquility that appealed to me. I made a note to Google her after I left New York for the day and so at 3am, I found out that Semionova was a principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre and that the ABT was performing Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center on the following weekend. I was already scheduled to spend three days in New York the following weekend for the 16th Del Close Marathon.
It was fate telling me that our paths should cross. Watching improv taught to say “yes.”
So at 3 am, the perfect time for making a decision, I bought a ticket to the matinee performance of Swan Lake on June 28th, when Semionova was the Queen of the Swans, Princess Odette. My knowledge of ballet was nonexistent, and what little I knew about Swan Lake was gleaned from an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures. I was saying “yes” to seeing a talented woman I was infatuated with perform her craft at an elite level; I was saying “yes” to a new experience to learn about something I normally don’t care about.
A brief survey of the crowd at the Lincoln Center showed that I was the black swan in the crowd.
I was decked out in a Florida t-shirt and jeans. Everyone else — families with their children, couples on a date, the elderly — was dressed up in some way or another; dresses, collared shirts, khakis, polo shirts, and dress shoes were the norm. My bad on the unwritten dress code,
My ticket was for a “partial view” — in everyday English, that’s called “cheap” — box seat on the fourth tier up from the stage, a tier named the Dress Circle (also the name of the store for wedding dresses that I will open up with my nonexistent capital). I sat next to a woman on my right who could have passed for my mother and a Korean couple to my left.
While her boyfriend stepped away to use the bathroom, the woman in the relationship made eye contact with me and gave me a smile that said “Oh, that’s so cool that you’re a guy watching a ballet by yourself.”
I silently replied with raised eyebrows, a slight smile, and nodding that said “I have no idea what the heck I’m doing here.”
In the 30 minutes before the show began, I scanned the rest of the packed Metropolitan Opera House, which looked like it hit its capacity of 3,800, and spotted one other guy, sitting in the box seat directly across the theater from me, wearing a t-shirts and jeans.
It was fate that our paths would cross. We weren’t alone in our casualwear.
I also read the Playbill provided to the audience, which is an amazing resource to have when you’re about to watch something where verbal communication does not exist. The Playbill contains a section that describes the plot in each act; I spoiled the ending to Swan Lake before the lights dimmed. But that’s OK, because without that Playbill, I would have missed a lot of plot points. One of the big plot points that the Playbill told me to catch was in Act II, when Prince Siegfried (Cory Stearns, standing in for an injured David Hallberg) is about to use his crossbow on the villainous, demon-looking sorcerer Von Rothbert (Roman Zhurbin). Odette glides in front of the villain and spreads her arms open in one of those typical ballerina poses, dissuading Siegfried from shooting. If Siegfried shot and killed Von Rothbert, the hex that the sorcerer placed on Odette would have killed her.
The language barrier between ballet and me prevented me from understanding all of the choreography I saw in Swan Lake. I mean, everyone looked like they nailed their moves perfectly to me, but I have no idea if I actually witnessed a technically superior performance or just a good one. Based on the standing ovation and four curtain calls, I’m assuming it was an excellent performance. I just knew that the music was great and that it made the story appear to feel a little more uplifting, despite how much of a downer the story truly is.
I mean, a princess gets cursed into being a swan in daylight by some sorcerer for God-knows-what-reason and her charming prince betrays her at his birthday party by falling for Odile, the daughter of the sorcerer. So what if Siegfried and Odette are united forever in the end? They were teenagers who met mere days before they both committed suicide in a lake created by the tears of Odette’s mother, just so that they could be together eternally as lovers. Shakespeare got nothing on this with his Romeo and Juliet.
Back to Semionova: I know for sure that she had an incredible performance because my theater mother seated to my right both applauded and yelled “Bravo” after every segment that Semionova had. And Semionova’s acknowledgement of the adoration was as elaborate as any fanfare celebration from the Final Fantasy series: she does not bow at the applauding crowd, but genuflects to them. Every time there was a break in the action for the audience to cheer her efforts, she proceeded slowly to the front of the stage, gently kneeled on her right leg, opened up her arms to the crowd, and lowered her head with her eyes closed. Whether on stage or in video, that aura of tranquility follows her.
And that brings me to the strangest thing about the ballet — stranger than the story or the ivy that covered Von Rothberg’s cape: when the audience gets the opportunity to applaud a soloist or principal dancer at the end of each segment, the performers are allowed to break character and the fourth wall by acknowledging the crowd with a bow. I’m not against the practice, but it just seems out of place in this context, when the performers are trying to tell a story.
I’m probably a one-and-done with the ballet; the technical intricacies of a choreography are just too much for my little mind to appreciate fully. But still, it was fun to partake in a quintessential New York experience. Thanks for opening my eyes a little more, Polina.