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A Classic Lives On with PNB’S Swan Lake

Written by Anna Waller

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancers Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz
in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake
Photo © Angela Sterling.

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake opened on Friday, April 12, 2013, with a strong argument that Swan Lake is very much a living classic. As so many nineteenth-century ballets threaten to become little more than period pieces, Swan Lake is one of a handful that endures—and Kent Stowell and Francia Russell have given us a version that cherishes the traditions of the Tchaikovsky score and the Petipa/Ivanov choreography while making subtle updates to the staging that make it live and breathe for a twenty-first-century audience. A stellar opening cast headed by Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in the lead roles made for a performance that ended with a standing ovation. Körbes, as Odette/Odile, rose to the challenge of the dual role and created two distinct, swan-like characters whose personality, presence, and movement were worlds apart. As Siegfried, Cruz used his regal presence and pristine technique to portray a prince who evolved from party boy, to man in love, to one stricken with sadness.

For those who need a refresher, Swan Lake tells the love story between Odette, the Swan Queen who is really an enchanted woman, and Siegfried, a prince who must find a bride. Siegfried finds Odette while hunting by a lake, and falls in love with her, but she is under the spell of Baron von Rothbart (Otto Neubert), which can only be broken by an oath of true love. Later, Rothbart attends the Prince’s ball with his daughter, Odile, disguised as Odette. Odile seduces Siegfried and compels him to swear his love to her. After the treachery is discovered, Siegfried runs back to the lakeside, where Odette turns back into a swan forever.

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Carla Körbes
in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake
Photo © Angela Sterling.

The curtain opened on Act I with an audible gasp of awe from the audience, and, indeed, the sight of lively, smiling dancers in an airy courtyard scene was breathtaking. (Ming Cho Lee’s designs set the scene beautifully, yet simply enough to never overpower the dancing.) Stowell and Russell’s staging kept the salient features of Act I, like the pantomime between Siegfried and his mother, the Queen (a commanding Louise Nadeau, who returns to PNB as a guest artist), and a crisp, engaging pas de trois (performed by Rachel Foster, Margaret Mullin, and Jonathan Porretta). Stowell’s waltz choreography, however, was a clear example of a slight update. While firmly classical, the choreography employed spatial patterns and musicality that looked much more contemporary than the sections that remained closer to the Petipa original. The result was a group dance that flowed seamlessly and kept the modern eye engaged.  

From Act II emerged a brilliant corps de ballet of swans and a flawless swan queen. PNB’s corps deserves the highest praise for exquisite unison, not just in the steps they danced, but in the tone and expression of their roles as swans. Each swan’s gaze matched the next, their arms became the same species of wing, and even their jumps had the same skimming quality as if they were floating on the lake. Likewise, Körbes danced Odette with such feathery grace that she seemed always to be soaring in the air. Every gesture, every glance was imbued with her character’s sadness, fear, and strength, but Körbes played these emotions as a woman trapped as a swan rather than a fully human woman. She embodied a swan’s strength in protecting the evil Rothbart from a cross bow, while still portraying a creature’s fear of being trapped or hunted by Siegfried. She eluded him until, in their gorgeous pas de deux, they danced together in sadness and wonder. Cruz partnered her with dexterity and sensitivity.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake
Photo © Angela Sterling.

National dances and virtuosic performance dominated Act III. While entertaining as always, the national dances—Czardas, Spanish, Neapolitan, and Persian—did not have quite the energetic joie de vivre demanded by the music (with the exception of a spritely Neapolitan danced by Mullin and Kiyon Gaines). This version also changed what is traditionally a Russian dance to a Persian dance, and cut out a mazurka entirely—probably smart updates for today’s Seattleites who may not appreciate three dances based on Eastern European folk dance. Virtuosity took center stage first with a lilting, humorous solo from Jester Benjamin Griffiths, and second with one of the hallmarks of classical ballet: the Black Swan Pas de Deux.

In the Black Swan Pas, Körbes and Cruz danced together seamlessly, each showcasing their finest qualities. Körbes’ Odile was charismatic, seductive, and manipulative. She created a caricature of her Odette: an imitation of a woman enchanted as a bird without the subtlety of expression. Her arms were too put-on, her gaze too high, her movements too flashy. As Siegfried, Cruz positively oozed danseur noble. Tall, long-limbed, and regal, Cruz also made every move with clean, precise technique: is there a pirouette the man can’t finish on demi-pointe? He is the perfect Tchaikovsky ballet prince. The one part of the Pas, and, indeed, the entire ballet, that seemed out of place, was Rothbart’s involvement. Something about Rothbart is clunky, and old-fashioned, and, while Neubert performed the part well, the role did not quite fit with the rest of the production. Furthermore, in the Black Swan Pas, he was superfluous: this Odile could clearly take care of herself.

Act IV returned to the Lakeside for the final sequences of the ballet. The corps returned to dance in more lovely patterns, consoling Odette as she turned into a creature of pathos. Körbes and Cruz danced one more emotional pas de deux, more openly sensual than any of their preceding duets. The Stowell/Russell production does not follow the traditional ending that sees both Siegfried and Odette meet their end in the lake. Instead, Odette turns back into a swan, resigned to her tragedy, and Siegfried falls to the ground in grief as the music comes to a close. This ending bears a remarkable resemblance to most endings of Giselle, both thematically and choreographically, but it fit nicely into this production of Swan Lake: it was sad but not overblown, traditional but not old-fashioned.

Swan Lake continues at McCaw Hall through Sunday, April 21, 2013. Tickets can be purchased here.