The Evolution of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake

The Evolution of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake

Lesley Rausch as Odette© Angela Sterling
Photo by Angela Sterling c/o PNB

Swan Lake is almost the definition of “canon” for classical ballet. What could be more rigid and tradition-bound than the most famous ballet? It turns out, a lot of things can. Swan Lake has changed a lot from its premiere in 1877, and even today, every performance is a little different. Since it’s also performed every three or four years in Seattle, we can actually watch the evolution of Swan Lake.  

My Swan Lake History

My first Swan Lake was in college. I got comps from a friend in the corps. They were way closer to the stage than anything I could afford (then or now). But they were so far off to the side that when Odette fluttered in the window like the Graduate, trying to wake Siegfried from Odile’s spell, I couldn’t see her. (Writing plot summaries is boring. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this.)

Patricia Barker was Odette/Odile and ballet master Otto Neubert was von Rothbart. I don’t remember who danced Siegfried. The precise dancing of statuesque Patricia Barker reinforced my image of Swan Lake as a marble-carved bastion of tradition.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake © Angela Sterling
Photo by Angela Sterling c/o PNB

I don’t think I saw it again until the current production that premiered in 2003 with the opening of McCaw Hall. I can’t remember if I saw it that year, or later. But I know for certain I saw it in 2013 and 2015 – I have the ticket stubs, even though I didn’t blog or review either of those performances. I guess I really do only remember the things I write down, because, this performance almost felt like the first time I’d seen it.

Not Your Grandmother’s Swan Lake

Or maybe I was just seeing it with new eyes, because this time I went to Education Programs Manager Doug Fullington’s pre-talk. I found out that except for Tchaikovsky’s exquisite score, almost everything that makes Swan Lake famous was missing from the original production. Ironically, the score was considered part of the problem with the original – too intense, too elaborate for ballet – not danceable at all.

But the fluttering swan arms, the arched and angled head bobs that make the dancers really look like birds – those were additions from the 1895 revival of the ballet. The birdlike motions were borrowed from another ballet, a short piece called The Swan. Odette/Odile has always been a dual role, but Odile was not always the Black Swan. In earlier versions of the ballet, she was ‘a sorceress’ and performed in all kinds of different costumes. Apparently, the founder of the PNB School once danced Odile in San Francisco in a yellow tutu.

Unique to PNB

Story

Even the story is malleable. The original Siegfried was a spoiled jerk who blames Odette for his own betrayal of her. Later versions have them committing lovers’ suicide or even sailing off to a happy ending in heaven. Those endings are still performed in some places. It’s only here at Pacific Northwest Ballet where we get a solid ending; a proper tragedy where Odette is doomed to live as a swan and Siegfried must live with his guilt for betraying her.

I don’t always love Kent Stowell’s choreography, but I do love his respect for story. I know for a lot of people the story is just a mannequin upon which to hang the choreography to give it shape. But I think Nutcracker is so much stronger as a coming-of-age story than a celebration of holiday candy. And Swan Lake is so much more poignant when Siegfried’s actions have real consequences.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers Swan Lake © Angela Sterling
Angela Sterling photo c/o PNB

Choreography

One time when I really do love Stowell’s choreography is the fourth act of Swan Lake. A lot of productions skip the fourth act entirely, which is a shame. The first act I could do without. I mean, yes, there is some lovely dancing, and it’s fun to see James Moore’s Drunken Master routine. But you could start with act two: a young prince, depressed because his mother says it’s time to settle down, goes hunting. Not much would be lost.

Anyway, act four is where the power is. It’s some of the most incredible music ever written, and what an opportunity for dancers. Act one offers some folk dances at a party. Act four is forgiveness, regret, and loss. These are the things dance does best – words can’t convey them nearly as well. Honestly, a guy like Siegfried would probably be just as happy with Odile, once he got over the shock. But for the audience to see the ballerina return to the languorous grace of Odette after dancing the quick, sharp, sly Odile – it’s heartbreaking. We too may have been seduced by Odile’s 32 fouettés, but the fourth act reminds us how much Siegfried has lost.

This Performance

Back in the day, the prima ballerina was Patricia Barker. I honestly don’t remember ever seeing anyone else in a lead role. But Peter Boal spreads the love a little more, and I think there are like five different couples dancing Siegfried and Odette/Odile this time around. There’s a lot more body diversity in the corps than there used to be, too. As a result, it’s a lot easier to see that ballet doesn’t just evolve over time but is also malleable among dancers.

This time I saw Lesley Rausch and Jerome Tisserand. To my untrained eye, Rausch shares some of the crystalline perfection of Barker. Direct comparison after so many years is impossible, but I think she brings more character to the roles in Swan Lake. This time it was so much harder to forgive Siegfried for falling into Odile’s trap because she was so obviously not the same woman. Except of course she was the same woman – she just moved so differently as Odile that Siegfried had to want to be tricked.

Lesley Rausch as Odile © Angela Sterling
Angela Sterling photo c/o PNB

It’s always hard to judge a performer when you dislike their character. When I was in high school, we would have called Siegfried a putz. In fact, he is a lot like the spoiled white boys at the prep school where we lobbed that particular insult. And to be honest, I can only recognize a few of the dancers by sight (I’m trying to get better about it, but they do keep retiring). Tisserand is not one of the dancers I can spot.

But even with two strikes against him, I still had to notice how smoothly effortless he looked. Swan Lake is full of “poster moments” and a lot of those beautiful stills are lifts. There was never an “oomph” or sense of collision when he caught Rausch. He always made her look like a bird that just perched, midflight, on his outstretched arm. In several scenes he carries her across the stage; Odette appears to soar across the backdrop of the supermoon because his steps are so smooth. It’s stupid to say “I’m going to keep my eye on that dancer,” when the dancer is already a principal – since 2014 even. But hey, it took Swan Lake over 120 years to evolve into the current PNB production. Ballets and their fans both have to improve at their own pace.

Tickets

February 2, 3, 8, 9 & 10 at 7:30 pm

February 3, 10* & 11 at 1:00 pm

February 11* at 7:00 pm

*added performances – best seating availability

Tickets ($30-$190) may be purchased online. Subject to availability, tickets are also available 90 minutes prior to each performance at McCaw Hall – these tickets are half-price for students and seniors; $5 for TeenTix members.

Just the Facts

Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Op. 20, 1875–1876)

Choreography: Kent Stowell

Staging: Francia Russell (after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov)

Scenic Design: Ming Cho Lee

Costume Design: Paul Tazewell

Lighting Design: Randall G. Chiarelli

Original Production Premiere: February 20, 1877, Imperial Ballet, Moscow, choreography by Julius Reisinger; restaged on January 15, 1895, Imperial Ballet, St. Petersburg, choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov

Stowell/Russell Production Premiere: October 1, 1976; Frankfurt Ballet

Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: April 8, 1981; new production September 25, 2003

Running Time: 3 hours including two intermissions and a five-minute pause.

Casting: Odette/Odile – Lesley Rausch
Prince Siegfried – Jerome Tisserand

 

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