Swan Lake is one of the most famous ballets and one of the most physically and emotionally challenging. Since it’s first performance in 1877 Moscow, its influence continues to be seen in such wide-ranging places as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) and Barbie of Swan Lake (2003). And who could forget Rudolf Nureyev’s performance of Swine Lake on the Muppet Show.
Swan Lake only appears on the CU Ballet’s calendar every four years or so; and, local ballet fans are anxiously awaiting opening night this Friday at the Virginia Theatre. As the dancers continue to prepare and the creative and technical staff work their last bits of magic, we the audience should prepare as well. So I offer to you this mix of historical facts, reminders from CU Ballet’s Executive and Artistic Directors, questions to consider, and ideas to keep in mind as you anticipate and ultimately enjoy this long-awaited production.
1. This technically challenging production has been many months in the making. CU Ballet Executive Director Kay Greene shared that the members of the corps have been preparing for this producton since last fall. The more intense sequence work began in January.
2. It takes a village to build the world of Swan Lake into reality. Artistic Director Deanne Doty must transform her dancers into “a flock of swans in custom tutus” of her own design, before beginning to arm the “prince and his courtiers with crossbows.” Doty credits set designer Andy Warfel’s “custom scenic elements” with “heightening the production’s drama.” In particular she points to his creation of a backdrop “depicting a dark and foreboding lake that rises with each scene — literally swallowing the dancers in the ballet’s climactic end.”
3. Let there be lights. And then more lights. Doty notes that “in addition to the full house of lights provided by the Virginia Theatre, CU Ballet lighting designer Kevin Gawley rents a truckload of specialty moving lights from Chicago that follow the dancers and create special effects that match Doty’s vision for the classic production. It took Gawley and IATSE Local 482 crew members several days to install, focus, and perfect the special lighting effects that help bring the ballet colorfully to life.”
4. Tchaikovsky’s score. Swan Lake marked his first composition for ballet. The experience transformed him, particularly in his appreciation for balletic scores. Legend has it that his excitement for the project allowed him to complete it within a year’s time. I’d strongly suggest listening to “Swan Lake” before attending the performance. Time spent experiencing only the music, will inform and deepen your appreciation of how it moves the dancers through the story.
5. The story. Spoiler Alert. Boy meets girl, well girl-swan, actually. Girl (and her friends) have been cursed by an evil magician to spend their days (but not their nights) as swans — lovely and remarkably balletic swans, but swans nonetheless. And you guessed it, the curse can only be broken by true love’s kiss. To stack the odds against the lovers, the evil magician transforms his daughter into a dark double of said girl/doppleganger and sends her out to seduce the prince. Boy takes the bait, promises to love the wrong girl forever, thereby destroying any chance of saving his true love from the curse.
6. The ending. Or rather endings, plural. Various adaptions and productions have taken different approaches to the ending. Some have gone with a happy ending, some have steadfasting held to the original tragic end, and some have found a hopeful, romantic message in a bittersweet ending. CU Ballet’s Swan Lake, based on its outline of the three acts, fits into this last category and that’s probably a good thing.
7. Balancing the sure-to-be breathtaking execution of the choreographer and production with the darkness (and implicit misogeny) of the story. CU Ballet did an outstanding job of bringing a modern sensibililty to The Nutcracker, while paying tribute to the source material. I look foward to seeing such alchemy in Swan Lake. For now, let’s be inspired by these words from Doty herself.
Audiences may consider Swan Lake the ultimate ballet for its monumental blend of classical ballet, theater of the romantic tragedy sort, and hauntingly powerful musical score by Tchaikovsky that stays with you long after the curtain descends. For those dancing on stage, its technical precision, complex corps de ballet sequences, and movements as big as its music make it a thrilling, ultimate challenge to perform.
Theatrically, Swan Lake has everything.
8. Revisit the potentially problematic aspects of the storyline. It might make for an interesting discussion with the young girls and boys in your life. It’s an interesting conundrum and a particularly relevant one for us today. How do we find our way into these tales of sleeping princesses after we ourselves have become woke? Some artists have taken to rewriting the classics in ways that empower both men and women. We’ve seen this in films like Ever After and Malificient. Girls do not need saving and boys (or princes) should not have to marry in order to prove that they are ready to become men. Yes, these are “just stories,” but their roots run deep.
9. CU Ballet is both an academy and a company. As you enjoy every jeté and arabesque, take a moment to appreciate the dedication to craft, the athleticism, and the commitment to performance that is demonstrated in each member of the corps thanks to the vision and direction of the CU Ballet Academy.
10. Support the CU Ballet. They have a vision for young dancers and our community that deserves our attention. They are commited to collaborating with local artists, supporting local choreography, and seeking diversity on-stage, in the audience and in the boardroom.
Learn more about CU Ballet on their website
Photos from the Champaign-Urbana Ballet