Legends of dancers wearing through three pairs of pointe shoes in one performance… The 32 famous fouettes… The pinnacle of a ballerina’s career…. Swan Lake is a ballet of mythic proportions, and these are only some of the reasons why. Epic in scope and performed by the best ballet companies worldwide, Swan Lake comes with high expectations, and therefore has the potential to fall flat. It’s an old story, after all, and it can only be done in so many new ways. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s take on Swan Lake, with choreography by Kent Stowell, doesn’t have any contemporary twists or modern gimmicks designed to revamp a ballet that many know so well. And that’s one of the production’s strengths. Another is the caliber of its dancers, who committed fully to the challenging technique and varied characters. With this season’s production, PNB flawlessly executed a classic ballet that remains captivating, heartbreaking, and gorgeous.
Swan Lake is about a man trying to rescue a woman from the evil scheme of another man, the woman ostensibly trapped and helpless. The evil one, Baron von Rothbart, is on a power trip, and Prince Siegfried, we’re led to believe, has the best intentions. It’s love at first sight. He must have Odette, and she must be free from the curse that turns her into a swan during daylight. No matter that the Prince has an ultimatum from his mother to marry, and that the accomplished women who come to his ball won’t satisfy. She’s the one. It’s an old story.
Yet the Prince doesn’t succeed in saving Odette—and it’s almost satisfying. He’s a spoiled boy who doesn’t get what he wants. And it’s not the sabotage and treachery and tragic mistakes of men that’s memorable in this story; instead, what lingers is the women, glorious in their captivity and their cunning.
One way of reading Odile, the daughter of von Rothbart, slights her as a treacherous, man-stealing woman. But this is complicated by the fact that the ballet is most famous for having the Odette/Odile role played by the same dancer. They’re different women, and they’re the same woman. The celebrated stature of the role is in part due to challenge of occupying two very different modes: the white swan plotting to escape her captor, and the black swan doing her father’s bidding to prevent this escape. Odette and Odile both inspire fascination, and their characters are entirely different. Lesley Rausch stunned with her ability to change her tone and style of movement while inhabiting each character. She was brilliant as Odette, a fusion of delicacy and strength. Her Odile was mighty and confident. The dancers who perform Odette/Odile, and the characters themselves, are women with astonishing stamina. The bevy of swans also have enormous strength in numbers, an eerie, desperate power that threatens to engulf even Baron von Rothbart.
The swans of Pacific Northwest Ballet excelled in this production. Their synchronization was not always perfect, but it was polished, and the slight differences in timing, extension, arm angle, and head tilt actually served to call attention to the unique strengths of each dancer. The famous pas de quatre of the four small swans was precise and pleasing; the swan pas de trois oozed romance and fluidity. The flurry of many, many swans together was impossibly beautiful.
There’s a weakness in the men who grasp obsessively for this beauty. Baron von Rothbart, played by William Yin-Lee, postures a lot, and unfurls his huge lavender cloak, but beyond his dramatic witchy entrance, he didn’t seem to have much power with this staging—in a good way. His enchantment over the swans lingers in the background, but he’s vastly outnumbered. Fierce in their determination to protect each other in the face of danger, the women reclaim some of the agency von Rothbart has attempted to suppress.
The women in Swan Lake may be captive, but they do a fair amount of captivating themselves. There’s a moment when Prince Siegfried, played solidly by Jerome Tisserand, worships at Odile’s feet. Odette is the one who so thoroughly entrances the Prince in the first place, and the ruler of the kingdom here isn’t a king, it’s the Queen Mother—whom the Prince begs for help when Odile’s identity is revealed. In a story featuring a male protagonist and a male villain, there are plenty of women who make a more lasting mark in this staging. The production is stronger for it, as it balances out some of the gendered power disparities of the story.
Swan Lake provides many opportunities for a company to shine in addition to the famous main role: music, soloists, costumes. PNB stepped up for all of these. The drama of the Tchaikovsky score allowed the PNB orchestra to really shine. The timpani rumbled, the cellos zinged, the cymbals crashed with gusto. Michael Jinsoo Lim’s violin solo was haunting and lovely, a breathtaking combination with the tragedy of Odette’s solo. Kyle Davis, playing the Jester, consistently nailed his solos in the party scenes, infusing his jumps and pirouettes with exactitude and good humor as he capered around the stage in a snazzy tailcoat. Costumes by Paul Tazewell—who has gained notoriety recently as the award-winning costume designer of the musical Hamilton—were elegant, richly colored, and playful.
It may be an old story, but when produced this well, Swan Lake delights with virtuosity and packs an emotional punch. PNB’s production is classic story ballet at its finest.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake premiered Friday, February 2 and runs through February 11 at McCaw Hall. More information at pnb.org.