Review by Rachel Papulkas
A young maiden dances alone in a forest, spirited and untroubled as Odette gathers flowers. Her footwork is light as she dances her way around the field, unaware of the looming presence of a mysterious winged creature. Watched from afar, the maiden does not notice the danger until it is too late. Wrapped up in the creature’s black wings, the maiden emerges from the creature’s hold as a magnificent swan.
Such was the entrancing prologue to the Alberta Ballet’s Swan Lake, a masterful production that testifies my belief in ballet as one of the world’s most beautiful art forms. Premiering for two nights at the Northern Jubilee on November 5-7, the show not only marked its return after a year-long delay, but also Christopher Anderson’s highly anticipated directorial debut. Blending Tchaikovsky’s original music composition with spectacular set and lighting design, the famous story of Swan Lake is brought to life: a maiden cursed to be a swan by day, and an evil sorcerer who is determined to keep her away from the Prince whose love could save her.
The November 5 production was my first in-person viewing of Swan Lake. Accompanied by little more than basic knowledge of its plot and a digital playbook, I was excited walking into the Northern Jubilee Auditorium, ready to watch ballet for the first time in years. The last time I’d attended the ballet, I’d been nine years old, and only half aware of what was happening on-stage of a Toronto production of The Nutcracker.
Still only a somewhat-novice to the world of ballet, I was eager to fully experience a Swan Lake production from beginning to end. Not nearly as eager, however, as my friend Maria, who’d regaled me with bits of the show’s history on the drive over. It wasn’t just a night for dressing up and enjoying some dance: for her, it was childhood dreams of watching the production in-person turned into reality. Ballet was magic for her, especially after having dreamed of becoming a professional ballerina.
“Swan Lake is timeless. There’s romance, longing, but also deceit and manipulation,” my friend raved as we took our seats inside the theatre. “The dancers train for years to be part of this, and they have to be incredible. You’ll see what I mean.”
And I did.
Separated into two acts, Swan Lake is 98 minutes of magic, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s score. The symphonic music sets the tone and atmosphere for each of its scenes, every sound and instrument an emotion connecting both the characters and audience into one shared experience.
Without uttering a single word, Tchaikovsky tells an entire tale with his orchestral soundtrack—the whimsy of a harp as Odette danced unaware in a field, the romantic shimmer of strings as Prince Siegfried (performed by Kelley McKinlay) fell in love with her at first encounter, a heavy brass and quick tempo to signal intensity and danger each time sorcerer Baron von Rothbart (performed by Eli Barnes) appeared. Tchaikovsky’s score did not just inform the emotion of the scene, but I felt them. I felt the wide scope of emotion in each pas de deux and the reverent touches between Odette and Siegfried.
Accompanying the score was breathtaking choreography. Surely the result of years of grueling training, the grace and fluidity of the cast’s footwork left me in awe, as well as the care in making the choreography true to their character. Standouts included Heather Dornian (performing Odette). Odette was ethereal and virtuous, her choreography often characterized by adagio (slow, graceful movement). Dressed in a beautiful white tutu and bodice, Dornian not only embodied the beauty of a swan through her costuming, but in her swan-like movements. Her extended arms acted as her fluttering swan wings.
As Odette’s thematic contrast, Jennifer Gibson as Odile shines. Introduced in Act Two, Odile is the alluring black swan antagonist, hoping to lure the Siegfried away. With Gibson’s quick movements and high jumps, Odile’s dancing is mysterious, powerful, and seductive. While Dornian’s chemistry with McKinlay (playing Siegfried) was palpable with reverence and longing, Gibson’s and McKinlay’s pairing was electric.
A standout moment from the entire show was Gibson’s mastery of the 32 fouettes: 32 quick-spins on one-foot. It’s an iconic moment in every Swan Lake rendition that had me holding my breath as I counted each of her turns. There was no other choice but to join in on the uproarious applause as Gibson completed her final turn with nothing but poise and unfailing confidence.
Rivaling the 32 fouettes for my favourite performance of the night was the “Dance of the Little Swans.” The routine, performed by four swans who’d been cursed along with Odette, is known as one of the most famous pieces of choreography from Swan Lake. Dancing with linked arms and in a straight line, the swans must work in complete synchronicity as they move side-ways. Not for the first time that night, the dance left me mesmerized and marveling at the skill and discipline exuded by the cast.
Perhaps controversially, one major change of Anderson’s Swan Lake is the ending. Instead of the production traditionally concluding with Odile and Rothbart’s plan succeeding, along with the tragic deaths of Odette and Siegfried, Anderson offered a more hopeful ending. Although it may have been a change traditionalist balletgoers may not like, it was a change that I enjoyed. The classic story of good triumphing over evil is a tale as old as time, but still a satisfying one when earned.
Walking out of the auditorium in high spirits, Maria and I chatted excitedly about the different dances, and poked a little fun at the very bat-like costuming of Rothbart’s black robes. It was clear the rest of the audience, funneling back into the lobby, were still as spellbound as we were.
The conversation around was alight with awe and enchantment, people’s excitement over what they’d just experienced bubbling through their descriptions of what their favourite scene was. The conversation around me also confirmed that I wasn’t alone in appreciating a happier ending for the usually-doomed Odette and Siegried.
Following some of the crowd to the posters set up near the front doors to the lobby, Maria and I lined up to grab a picture in front of them. Already discussing plans to see more ballet shows together, the two of us watched as a little girl danced nearby. Dressed in her own sparkly white dress and tiara, the girl bent into a Plié, humming out-loud to the Swan Lake theme song.
“So, was Swan Lake everything you could’ve dreamed of?” I asked Maria.
Turning her gaze back to me, Maria let out a deep breath and a grin. “It was magical.”