Soaring 'Swan Lake' is always a favorite
It's no accident that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's new production of "Swan Lake" opens just after Valentine's Day. It's story is about finding true love, told with thrilling classic ballet technique and Tchaikovsky's soaring and revolutionary music.
"It's one of the most popular classic ballets and one of my favorites too," says Terrence Orr, the ballet's artistic director. "The general public knows 'Swan Lake' as much, if not more than 'The Nutcracker.'"
Perhaps that's why the company felt emboldened to offer its new production, using one of the last set designs created by artist Peter Farmer before he died last year, for double the number of performances it usually does.
"This is a new plateau for us," says Orr. "We're doing two weeks with the orchestra and have four ballerinas doing the leading character. Ticket sales are going very well."
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present eight performances of "Swan Lake" Feb. 15 to 25 at Pittsburgh's Benedum Center. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's music will be performed by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra conducted by music director Charles Barker.
Tchaikovsky wrote the ballet in the mid-1870s, after his Piano Concerto No. 1 and before his Symphony No. 4. It was not a success at its 1877 premiere and modern performances are based on the 1895 revival after his death.
The ballet begins with prince Siegfried celebrating his 21st birthday, which his mother, the queen, reminds him means he will have to choose a bride from six princesses she's selected for him. But while hunting in Act II he sees a magnificent swan in flight which, before he can shoot, turns into a woman. She tells him she is princess Odette, who has been transformed into a swan by an evil sorcerer's spell and can only be freed if a young man swears eternal love and marries her. Siegfried vows to be that man.
The third act is Siegfried's birthday ball, at which he dances with the six princesses chosen by the queen but refuses to choose any of them. But when Baron von Rothbart arrives with his daughter Odile, Siegfried is shaken. Odile looks just like his true love because Rothbart is the sorcerer who wants Siegfried to break his vow. Siegfried is fooled and swears his love for Odile. In the final act Siegfried finds Odette and asks forgiveness for his betrayal. He joins her in death, which breaks Rothbart's spell and ends his power.
If the choreography for "Swan Lake" epitomizes the discipline of classical ballet, principal dancer Amanda Cochrane says there's still a lot of freedom in the art of making dance come alive. She will perform both Odette and Odile, as will the other three ballerinas taking the dual role.
"One of the most special things about the technique behind Odette and Odile is that you have a lot of room to play with you port de bras (arm movements) and with the music," Cochrane says
But the roles are a dramatic challenge as well.
"They are such polar opposite roles I kind of fell I have to flip an internal switch," she says. "I approach Odette with a feeling of love and desire and give her a wounded innocence with a bit of wild Swan-like action. Odile is a trickster, so she has been cunning and seductive without showing her true identity to Siegfried. When the prince has his back turned away from her I try to show the audience who she really is."
Alejandro Diaz, one of the four male dancers who will portray Siegfried, says his character is pure of heart.
"He's almost a being born ahead of his time," says Diaz. "He lives in a world where he's expected to accept an arranged marriage. He wants to find the woman he loves."
One of the ballet's most magical moments for him is Odette's entrance in Act II.
"It's just her on stage and it's just like a bird landing on the water. The way the arms fall slowly to the music and almost undulate and articulate like a bird is so pristine and so beautiful," Diaz says. "He's watching from a distance and thinks – what is this creature? I've never seen anything like this before. That moment, right there when they first meet, is the ballet. I'm getting goose bumps right now, just thinking about it."
"Swan Lake" is the first of Tchaikovsky's three great scores which transformed ballet music.
"Tchaikovsky brought symphonic sweep to ballet music," says Barker. "He set an incredibly high standard that gave ballet a real kick in the pants and put lesser composers out of a job. Doing 'Giselle' once in a while is great, but to have Tchaikovsky as the mainstay of ballet – what could be better. That's the mixed blessing of ballet. We have the very worst music and the very best music."
Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.
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