Cincinnati Ballet: Why dive into ‘Swan Lake’ again?

Cincinnati Ballet opens its production of the 19th Century warhorse at Music Hall February 13. And it will be gorgeous, I’m sure.

A scene from Cincinnati Ballet’s 2009 presentation of “Swan Lake,” performed in collaboration with BalletMet Columbus (Photo by Peter Mueller)

But why not one of the many other fine works that fill the ballet repertory? Haven’t we seen “Swan Lake” enough? After all, this is Cincinnati Ballet’s 58th season, and over the course of those years, the company has performed “Swan Lake” in whole or in part 14 times. This will be No. 15.

The only ballet the company has performed more frequently is “Nutcracker.” And that one has undergone so many evolutionary twists over the years, it’s like seeing a whole new ballet every time Cincinnati Ballet introduces a new production.

“Swan Lake,” for better or worse, has remained relatively unchanged. It’s the same story about the same woman living under the same spell that forces her to live as a swan. And it’s the same prince who falls in love with her, then betrays her.

Why see it again?

There are lots of reasons, of course, the most high-minded being the desire to preserve a classic ballet. But ultimately, ballet companies need to sell tickets. And for whatever set of reasons, “Swan Lake” does sell tickets.

“It’s an iconic ballet,” says Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan. “I think, outside of ‘Nutcracker,’ if you ask the general public what ballet they know the best and love the most, I would say 90 percent of them would say ‘Swan Lake.’ Maybe even more than that.”

 Cincinnati Ballet first soloist Edward Gonzalez Kay and principal dancer Sirui Liu rehearse for the company’s upcoming performances of “Swan Lake.” (Photo: Cincinnati Ballet)

And it’s true that “Swan Lake” has inveigled its way into the public consciousness in a way that no other ballet has, other than, as Morgan points out, “Nutcracker.”

Remember Miss Piggy dancing “Swine Lake” on prime time TV with ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev? Or the mostly male version of the ballet by choreographer Matthew Bourne that wowed both Broadway and London’s West End? Or the ultra-creepy 2010 feature film “Black Swan?” Those with a deep cinematic memory may even recall that the Academy Award-winning film “Funny Girl” has a scene in which Barbra Streisand’s character, Fanny Brice, performed a comedic send-up of “Swan Lake.”

The point is, “Swan Lake” is, as Morgan suggests, all around us.

Principal dancer Melissa Gelfin performs 32 fouettés in rehearsal for “Swan Lake.”

But its popularity runs deeper than that, says Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre.

“The story of ‘Swan Lake’ is one of the best in all of ballet,” says McKenzie, whose own production of the ballet has never left the ABT repertory since its premiere 20 years ago. “It is filled with all of those great Shakespearean themes; star-crossed lovers, betrayal, power mongering. Ballets like ‘Swan Lake’ are called classics for a reason. Their themes are enduring.”

And it’s true that, despite its period costumes and the hunting scenes with bows and arrows, “Swan Lake” is filled with the sorts of heightened emotions that would give us goose-bumps in a modern-day movie.

Of course, conjuring up those emotions on the stage takes more than good ballet technique. It takes acting. Really good acting.

I recall a 2006 Cincinnati Ballet production in which the leading man displayed no interest at all in Odile, the black swan whose allure was supposed to captivate him. Never mind that the male dancer had great technical prowess. As McKenzie points out, performing “Swan Lake” is like performing Shakespeare – the drama has to be there. All the lovely white tutus in the world can’t save “Swan Lake” from an emotionally lackluster performance.

Another scene from the 2009 production (Photo by Peter Mueller)

“The most important thing is that we tell the story well and that we tell it clearly,” says Stoner Winslett, artistic director of the Richmond Ballet, whose own production of the work opens February 14. “That is the message our ballet master tells the dancers all the time. And it’s not just a message that is important for dancers in principal roles like Siegfried, Odette and Odile. It is true for every single character in the ballet. Paying attention to all those characters is essential.”

As reverential as artistic directors are about “Swan Lake,” the ballet has changed radically in the 143 years since its 1877 Moscow premiere. For one thing, much of choreographer Julius Reisinger’s production was dumped in favor of a reimagined version by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg in 1895.

Since then, choreographers have taken enormous liberties with the ballet, particularly the final act. Sometimes both star-crossed lovers die, though occasionally just one of them does. Other times, they both survive, but manage to dispatch the evil magician von Rothbart, who cast the spell that set the story into motion.

But usually choreographers try to preserve the “original” ballet as best they can. That’s why, for instance, Cincinnati Ballet’s choreographic credit says “Kirk Peterson after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.” It is Peterson’s creation, though it is based, to be best of his ability, on that 1895 choreography.

Peterson, like McKenzie, distinguished himself as a principal dancer with ABT. Later, he was artistic director of the Hartford Ballet and eventually went on to a successful international choreographic career.

When it comes to “Swan Lake,” though, Peterson is something of a purist. Indeed, in his program notes, he cites the words of former New York Times dance critic Clive Barnes during a 1968 symposium in San Francisco called “Why a Swan.”

Cincinnati Ballet principal dancer Sirui Liu, one of two dancers cast in the dual role of Odette/Odile. (Photo: Cincinnati Ballet) 

“I think there is a big difference between a staging of a play and the choreography of a ballet,” wrote Barnes. “We can accept producers and directors having their way with Shakespeare, because no matter how much they tamper or tinker, the original text remains – it’s stable. But if you change and keep re-changing the choreography of a ballet, the original dances are eventually lost – they can’t be revived. The text of a ballet is not its music, but its choreography.”

Morgan has a relationship with this ballet that goes back more than 40 years, first as performer and now, as artistic director. For her, the reason to keep doing “Swan Lake” is very simple. And it’s not about selling tickets.

“It’s beautiful,” she says. “There is something mesmerizing about this group of women doing rather difficult steps in absolute unison and breathing together. The swan arms are so ethereal. The sheer beauty of it is … I don’t know if I have the words to describe the beauty of it.”

She stops for a moment, trying to think of another way to convey her love for “Swan Lake.”

It’s a difficult thing to express. Ballet – any type of dance, really – exists only for that nanosecond it unfolds in front of you. It’s there, and then – before it has a chance to fully register in your mind – it’s gone. Unless performed and passed along to other dancers, other audiences, a dance will disappear.

“If we don’t perform ‘Swan Lake,’ is doesn’t survive, it doesn’t live,” says Morgan. “And in my opinion, ‘Swan Lake’ ought to live and it ought to be performed. That’s why we do it. And why we will do it again and again and again.”

Feb. 13-16, Music Hall.
Cincinnati Ballet: Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”

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