By Paul Horsley
It’s true that dancing the lead in Swan Lake is the dream of many young ballerinas, but not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. Quite simply, the dual role of Odette/Odile contains such an array of artistic, technical and psychological complexities that for more than a century it has remained an infinite source of fascination: for audiences, choreographers and especially dancers.
“It’s like learning a poem in another language,” said Kansas City Ballet dancer Tempe Ostergren of the process of “becoming” Swan Queen Odette, with all of that character’s bird-like movements. “You learn the ‘words,’ and then you come in and really learn to understand the meaning: Where the accents are, where the timing should be, where you should place your arms. Because you’re a swan! You don’t stand the way a person would stand. Your arms are held differently, and even the way you prepare for certain ballet steps is different.”
But that’s not the prima ballerina’s only task: On the other side of the equation is Odile, the “Black Swan,” who has her own dark agenda for wooing Prince Siegfried. “You are literally all of the opposites,” said Tempe, who alternates with Molly Wagner in the dual role when the Kansas City Ballet presents its first-ever Swan Lake beginning February 19th. “Every movement is stronger, more vicious. You have these dynamic turns to express that energy.” While the White Swan is called upon to be shy and demure, to cast her eyes humbly downward when Prince Siegfried is around, “the Black Swan’s eyes are sharp and piercing and evil. She’s a seductress.”
Odette is under a spell and assumes human form only at night, while at the same time the conniving Odile (who is acting as an agent for one of ballet’s great arch-villains, Rothbart) apparently resembles Odette enough that the Prince “inadvertently” pledges his love to her instead. At the heart of the story, some say, is the way in which the two swans are reflections of the same character-type, a sort of yin-yang psychological underpinning that finds expression in the dance steps.
“There are very similar steps from the White Swan Variations that come back in the Black Swan Variations,” said Artistic Director Devon Carney, who previously choreographed parts of Swan Lake for Cincinnati Ballet but is creating his first full-length version here. “This is what’s so beautiful about the two roles being done by the same person. … The softer she is as the White Swan, the more intensity the movement will have as the Black Swan.”
Devon has drawn on a wide range of sources for his Swan Lake, always with an eye to upholding the tradition of 19th-century choreographer Marius Petipa and others. “My main sources were, frankly, my experiences of what I’ve done over the 35 years I’ve been doing Swan Lake.” Finding an “original” version is neither possible nor necessarily a primary goal. “It’s pretty hard to get to the original, because it was 1895 and dances were very different. … But my sense is that the story line is intact.”
To help the dancers get to that core story, the Ballet brought in the legendary Cynthia Gregory, who danced with the American Ballet Theater from the 1960s through the 1980s and was one of the great exponents of the role of Odette/Odile. (Nureyev called her “America’s prima ballerina assoluta.”)
“These are two gorgeous dancers,” Cynthia said of Molly and Tempe in a recent panel discussion at KC Ballet studios, with Devon moderating and Molly and Tempe on hand. Cynthia had worked with the KCB dancers for more than a week, passing on as much of her knowledge of Swan Lake as she could, mano a mano. “To get it from the source like that, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Devon said.
Joining Molly and Tempe are their partners, Liang Fu and Lamin Pereira dos Santos, who alternate in the role of Prince Siegfried. The production also features live performance of Tchaikovsky’s peerless score, with the Kansas City Symphony led by Ballet Music Director Ramona Pansegrau.
Cynthia has helped take the piece to another level. “She can refine things, help you sculpt your own shape,” Tempe said. Each dancer brings different strengths, of course: For Molly, Odette comes more naturally, because “it’s hard to be as totally evil as Odile is.” Tempe on the other hand finds “it’s really hard to find the softness and the agility for Odette.” She is, after all, a wounded animal, trying to be graceful through pain. “It’s amazing how fast your heart can beat,” Tempe said, “when you have to do something totally slow and controlled and make it look effortless.”
Dancing Swan Lake comes down to both artistry and narrative, Devon said. “Certainly technique is important: They need to have that bravura assuredness for the Black Swan pas de deux, and then the ability to be very soft and fluid and boneless as the White Swan. … But the over-arching thing is that there’s a story that we’re telling here. It’s not just steps … we have to get beyond that.”
“Story” remains central to both Devon’s and Cynthia’s devotion to ballet. Early in her career, Cynthia chose ABT over New York City Ballet precisely because of its emphasis on story ballets, instead of the more abstract repertoire by Balanchine and others that was NYCB’s standard. Story remains essential to ballet’s place in the world, Cynthia said, in Swan Lake as in any piece. “It’s a challenge today to do a full-length ballet and have it be relevant. It has to be as moving and as real as it can be.”
Swan Lake runs February 19th through the 28th at the Kauffman Center. For tickets and information call 816-931-8993 or go to kcballet.org.