Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, which runs at McCall Hall through Feb 11, is a big, lush, multicultural dance party driven by a heartbreaking romance that ballet directors have wisely and rightfully shaped into somewhat of a feminist tragedy, as former Stranger interim arts editor Megan Burbank argued so convincingly on the blog back in 2018. 

This epic story ballet spends more stage time on complex dance sequences than it does on telling a story, so, if you haven't seen it before, then your enjoyment of this masterpiece will increase greatly if you read up on the plot* in the program before the curtain rises. 

This year, Pacific Northwest Ballet originally slated principal dancer Elizabeth Murphy to play the dual role of Odette and Odile (the white swan and the black swan, respectively), the most coveted role in perhaps the world's most popular ballet, but an injury forced Murphy to swap nights with principal Leta Biasucci, who first debuted her Swan Queen in 2022, and who'd never flown on opening night before.

At the risk of extending this avian metaphor way too far, Biasucci didn't just perform well on Friday night under the added pressure. With the helping hand of principal dancer Lucien Postlewaite, who played her beloved Prince Siegfried, she soared, swooned, and flawlessly unfolded, feather by feather, fouetté by fouetté, one of art's great tragic figures.

A man falling in love with a bird, a weirdly common trope in literature. Angela Sterling

Biasucci's Odette emerged from the misty lake shy and genuinely forlorn, as if she really did spend half her life as a swan, and as if that life really did suck as much as it sounds like it does. Her movements gained strength, confidence, and regality in proportion to her growing love for Siegfried, and for the liberation that love promised. Later on, when she transformed into Odile, she adopted a perfectly sinister grin and tore through the duet's famously challenging 32 turns like a very orderly tornado. In brief, she did a very good job at one of the hardest things to do outside of giving birth to a child, a feat she accomplished, by the way, only a little more than a year ago. 

Postlewaite also carefully tended to his character's transformation, starting him out as charismatic reveler and slowly turning him into a gallant, lovesick prince. Watching him lift Biasucci throughout the show was like watching god placing stars in the sky. Effortless rise. Impossibly high. And Biasucci held firm, as if the force of love itself had levitated her into the air rather than the mere muscle and bone of her partner's steady hands. 

Apart from the brilliance of the opening night leads, the pas de trois with soloist Madison Rayn Abeo and principal dancers Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan and James Kirby Rogers topped my highlight reel. In a rose-pink sunburst dress courtesy of costume designer Paul Tazewell, Ryan waltzed through her marks, nailed an arm-ripple move that made me want to see her take a run as the Queen, and flashed a big, easy smile that offered a welcome contrast to the show's dark moodiness. Likewise, Abeo radiated joy in bright yellow and orange, and displayed impressive footwork and quick spins. Meanwhile, in a more muted lavender, Rogers sliced through the air as he leapt clear across the stage in a couple massive, long jumps. A solid trio. 

An equally solid quartetto: Malena Ani, Yuki Takahashi, Madison Rayn Abeo, Clara Ruf Maldonado.

Coming in at a close second on the highlight reel was soloist Ezra Thompson, who reprised his role as Siegfried's drunken chaperon, Wolfgang. Thompson delivered premium comedic clownery. He appeared in complete control of his wavering and toppling, and he exhibited a kind of exacting movement and a goofy athleticism that made my date laugh out loud. If I have to type "soloist" next to his name one more time I'm gonna FLIP. Promote that man! 

Soloist Amanda Morgan's "Persian Dance" captivated the whole auditorium as she whirled around the stage in purples, golds, and blues. The sequence recalled the totally transfixing energy of the peacock dance in The Nutcracker, another role she absolutely kills. 

I would go to war alongside these swans. Angela Sterling

Last but far from least, I must give it up for the swans. PNB's professional students, the corps, and the other dancers who donned white tutus on opening night kept their lines tight and their vibe militant as they sprinted in circles around the stage with about four inches between them. They carried the show's mystery and whipped up its mists while performing some high-level choreography apparently without error, and without them the show would have had none of its magic. Bravo. 

* The long story short: Prince Siegfried goes on a hunting trip and falls in love with Odette (aka the white swan), a beautiful woman who lives under the spell of an evil sorcerer. The sorcerer cursed her and a bunch of other women to live their daylight hours as swans and their nighttime hours as beautiful women who hang out by a lake. Like a lot of spells, only the declaration of everlasting love can break this one. And like a lot of princes, Prince Siegfried was fully ready to put a ring on it until one fateful night, when the evil sorcerer introduces him to Odile (aka the black swan), who wins his heart during a tremendously intense dance-off causing him to fail to break the curse on a technicality, though kind of a bullshit one, since the same dancer plays both the black swan and the white swan.