Classical ballet doesn’t get much more pure than Swan Lake. So even if you’re disillusioned with story ballets or with companies trotting out the same repertoire year after year, you can still appreciate Swan Lake for its capacity to showcase the classicism of ballet with astonishing clarity. The unparalleled beauty that ballet offers in its most elemental form can only be achieved by artists of the highest caliber. Fortunately for Seattle, Pacific Northwest Ballet boasts just such artists, and the company’s production of former Artistic Director Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake showcases them in their element.
First and foremost, Swan Lake is about the ballerina. And what a ballerina PNB has in Carla Körbes. While the fantastical story—Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a woman under an evil sorcerer’s spell that turns her into a swan—naturally requires a suspension of disbelief, Körbes makes Odette the most believable part of the production. She’s not playing a woman trapped as a swan, she is the swan. At this Sunday’s matinee performance, Körbes lended the ballet a gravitational center, making everything else surrounding her doomed love for Siegfried seem inconsequential.
But Odette, of course, is just half of the story. The dual character of Odette/Odile presents the ultimate trial of technical facility, emotional range, and artistic capability for a ballerina. It is one of ballet’s most taxing roles, yet Körbes seems born to dance it. Indeed, the ballet has been a throughline in her career (as noted in this profile), and she exquisitely rises to its every challenge. Her technique is flawless and so remarkably controlled that it enables her to convey character through the ballet vocabulary alone. This is perhaps most evident in her port de bras: her arms deftly (and ceaselessly) ripple from the middle of her back to the tips of her fingers to create the illusion of avian flight. As Odette, she shivers with vulnerability as one ankle beats rapidly against the other. There’s a tenderness to how she extends her leg in arabesque and a sublime passion in a set of turns across the stage. In Act III, Odile inverts all of these qualities. Every arabesque seems to shoot daggers and you can almost hear a wicked cackle as she swoops into a triumphant back bend. This acuity extends to Körbes’ musical and artistic choices. Instead of playing a passage in Odile’s pas de deux with the usual oversplit leaps into a sky-high developpé à la seconde, Körbes shows restraint in both extensions allowing her punctuated musicality and taunting come-hither looks to convey Odile’s irresistible maliciousness. And, as Odette, she almost reverently matches the haunting violin strains that accompany her final turns before swooning into a penchée; the downward flick of her wrists with the final pluck of strings makes you sigh at its perfection.
While Swan Lake presents a definitive challenge for the lead ballerina, it also challenges the company as a whole, particularly the female corps de ballet. In PNB’s production, the collective flocking and preening in Act II is impressive because of the sheer quantity of swans and their immaculate formations, but the group seems lackluster in comparison to Körbes’ luminescence. The same could be said of most of Act I as well as the court dances of Act III, both sections drag on: they feel like filler for the main event. This isn’t helped by the fact the choreography in these sections falls into the same pitfalls as most of Stowell’s work. Namely, a sense of misplaced musicality that rarely does justice to the lush cascades of Tchaikovsky’s score. It seems like there’s always one too many steps in any given phrase, though the dancers must do their best to fit them all in.
Prince Siegfried’s role, also essential to the ballet, is another challenge. The Sunday matinee featured Karel Cruz, and he performed with gallantry befitting of a prince. His height lends him a nonchalant regality, his turns are preternaturally on balance, and his soaring jumps are effortlessly buoyant. The natural onstage chemistry between Cruz and Körbes, grounded the ballet’s drama and deepened the resonance of all of their pas de deux.
Ming Cho Lee’s evocative minimalist sets also deserve mention. Their slightly off-kilter configuration foreshadow the ballet’s impending tragedy from the beginning of Act I. The exquisite lighting design by Randall G. Chiarelli adds another layer of magic to the ballet. The swans shimmer in Act II’s luminous moonlight, and he manages to convey a slight sense of unease even during the vibrant court scenes.
This particular run of Swan Lake carries a sense of heartbreak beyond the ballet’s love story: Körbes will retire from PNB at the end of the season. While it’s thrilling to see her in her element at the height of her career, it’s bittersweet to acknowledge that these are Seattle last opportunities to see her as Odette or Odile. Her final performance in the role will be the matinee on Saturday, April 18. Principals Lesley Rausch and Laura Tisserand will also be dancing Odette/Odile this weekend.
PNB’s Swan Lake continues April 15-19. More information and tickets can be purchased here.