Those who have never seen a ballet performance before probably know more about “Swan Lake” than they think.
As Ballet West prepares to perform Adam Sklute’s restaging of what is known as the quintessential ballet Feb. 6-15 at the Capitol Theatre, the four women cast in the lead role offer their insights to help make sense of “Swan Lake’s” immortality.
Chances are one has seen everyone from Bugs Bunny to Bart Simpson portray the Swan Queen or heard parts of the legendary Tchaikovsky score in a favorite romantic movie. Even the ballet’s signature birdlike arm movement has become synonymous with the art form itself. Because “Swan Lake” is among the most widely revered of all the classics, references to it show up everywhere and have become deeply embedded in our culture.
A recent testament to this is Taylor Swift’s music video for her No. 1 hit “Shake It Off,” which features Swift and seven others dancing in Ballet West’s own swan costumes. Swift’s team rented the costumes for the video, which now has more than 520 million views on YouTube.
Why all the fuss over a 138-year-old ballet?
“I think it has to do with Tchaikovsky’s music,” said Katherine Lawrence, who, along with Beckanne Sisk, Christiana Bennett and Haley Henderson Smith, rotates performances dancing as the Swan Queen. The character is named Odette, the woman-turned-swan who leads a flock of imprisoned swan maidens who are under the spell of the evil Von Rothbart.
The other women agreed with the sentiment.
“It’s the music,” Smith said. “The first time I danced ‘Swan Lake,’ I was 17 years old and had just joined the Royal Danish Ballet. During rehearsal, I was so taken with the music. Sometimes it would send me into a daydream, and I’d come in at the wrong time or go the wrong way.”
Bennett said, “I still get goosebumps when I hear the music, even in rehearsal.”
If it were simply the music, however, “Swan Lake” would be purely the orchestra’s domain. It seems fair to say, then, that there’s something magical happening above the orchestra pit.
Extreme athleticism and technical skill are required in dancing the lead role, especially when Odette becomes Odile, the black swan mirror image of the heroine — played by the same dancer — who, as ballet’s bad girl, embodies flashy, fast-footed technique that requires massive amounts of stamina — among the feats is the execution of 32 consecutive whiplike turns called fouettés.
Yet modesty prevails among the ballerinas. When asked what they’d point out to a newcomer, none of the women performing as Odette/Odile mentioned the fact that the role is a rite of passage for any truly brilliant ballerina or that it’s the realization of every dancer’s dream.
“If I were accompanying someone to the show, I would definitely point out the corps de ballet swans,” Smith said. “I don’t think people fully appreciate how hard it is to be a member of the corps.”
Part of the ballet’s fame is in the images of a huge flock of swan maidens, and the four women know this challenge firsthand, having earned their stripes in past productions dancing in the lines of perfectly syncopated swans.
Careful to precisely match the dancer in front of her, each swan maiden takes delicate steps with a deep, slow port de bras (arm movement) giving the illusion of ease and grace, all while feet, arms and back are burning from the glacially paced execution of movement.
Then, they are required to stand in difficult poses during the principal variations: extensive partner sections when Odette and Siegfried — the prince who discovers and falls in love with her — dance together and then separately.
“The effort put into standing so still during those variations makes for a beautiful stage,” Smith said, “but it is extremely difficult to dance so much and then stand so still while you have sweat dripping in your eyes and your feet are cramping and you're preparing for your next entrance.”
As demanding as the role of a corps swan maiden is, the role of Odette/Odile is recognized in the ballet world as a litmus test of the entire company.
“Part of what makes the role so difficult is portraying all the emotion while still being a swan throughout the ballet,” Sisk said.
The dancers say getting the emotion right while conveying swanlike qualities is tougher than it looks, not to mention the challenge in dramatizing a believable split personality when dancing first as the gentle swan queen and then as an evil enchantress.
“I am really looking forward to performing Odette/Odile again so that I can build upon what I did before,” Lawrence said. “So much has happened to me personally since I danced it in 2010, and I feel I’m bringing more experience and maturity to the role.”
Lawrence and Smith both recently returned to Ballet West after becoming mothers this past year.
“I don’t have to worry if I will get through the ballet,” Lawrence said. “I already know I can do that. Plus, after having a baby, my concepts of stamina and endurance have really been put into perspective.”
If you go ...
What: Ballet West’s “Swan Lake”
When: Feb. 6-7, 11-14 at 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 7-8, 14-15 at 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $29-$84