NEW YORK — AMERICAN BALLET THEATER opened its New York season at the Metropolitan Opera House with a new production of ``Swan Lake,'' directed and choreographed by the company's artistic director, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Just why ABT needed a remake of a ballet they already had in a serviceable version is not clear, but the ``Swan,'' running in multi-performance blocks, will constitute nearly one-fourth of the eight-week spring season. ``Swan Lake'' is one of the three or four canonical items in the classical repertory. Its hummable 110-year-old Tchaikovsky score and its fairy-tale imagery have seeped out into the popular culture, and its choreographic conflicts between worldliness and spirituality, pure love and evil domination, represent ballet itself to the profession and the public. It's a standard by which ballet companies measure their strength, and a box office winner that often rescues a stressed budget.
Despite its longevity and the firmness of our ideas about it, ``Swan Lake'' is continually being reexamined. Every year, it seems, another major company undertakes the task of updating it or backdating it, cutting or restoring cuts, adjusting the order of the dances, interpreting the psychological significance of the characters, refining the stage environments. This gives critics something to talk about but seldom makes any difference to our concept of the ballet itself.
The fact is, ``Swan Lake'' can be a boring ballet. It needs stars, phenomenal performances, and a commitment to fantasy in a magical, opulent atmosphere. The late '80s Ballet Theatre, with its pragmatic and corporate style, isn't the place to find such a blend.
On opening night the dual role of the Swan Queen was danced by Susan Jaffe, probably the most technically accomplished of the middle generation of ballerinas Baryshnikov has been grooming since he took over the company 10 years ago. Miss Jaffe mastered the contrasting demands of the melancholy second act, where she plays Odette, the captive princess-turned-into-a-swan, and the flashy third act, where she's Odile, the daughter of the magician Rothbart (Michael Owen), who arrives uninvited at the prince's birthday party to make him fall in love with her and betray his vows to the innocent Odette.
Jaffe's idea of Odette was all on one level, her dancing uninflected. She seemed to be following the exaggeratedly slow tempo of Natalia Makarova, without Makarova's captivating introverted line. Jaffe has also learned the trick of making her arms rotate sinuously as she flaps them. The audience enthusiastically applauded this stunt when she parted from the prince under Rothbart's spell. The ovation effectively dissipated the elegiac mood of the whole act, and besides, whoever heard of a snaky swan? As the seductive Odile, Jaffe was even more misguided. Wearing too much makeup and flinging herself into the bravura steps of the grand pas de deux, she was about as subtle as Mae West. On the other hand, her prince, Ross Stretton, was so unresponsive she may only have been trying to get his attention.
The new production has the standard amount of ensemble dancing, divertissements, and miming. ABT's corps now is well trained and clean, but, like the principals, they neither sparkled nor soared. Pier Samaritani's sets and costumes seemed calculated to avoid the opulent period designs of previous versions, but the royal court's colors - lavender and white in the first act, and sour, clashing crimson, nile green, orange and sky blue, olive and gold in the third - were really unattractive, without making any particular point. The second and fourth ``Swan'' acts took place behind distorting layers of scrim and cellophane. I never understood why the swans should seem to be dancing under water.
What this production reminded me of, with its correct, unrevealing dancing and spare designs, its deemphasized pageantry in the court scenes, was some current Soviet productions of the classics. Baryshnikov's former company, the Kirov Ballet, is where the Russian classics originated, but that was long ago. He seems to have adopted a more recent, anti-imperialist style for this imperial ballet, although he's claiming this version captures a 19th-century authenticity.