Watching Swan Lake is the only thing that gives me the same feeling as an adult that watching Disney movies gave me when I was 5 years old. By the time the brass bursts in and the timpani rolls and a ballerina jerks her arms upward in the ballet’s final transformation sequence, I am crying and fully convinced she is turning into a bird.*
Pacific Northwest Ballet's recent production of Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake was no exception to that rule, with principal Laura Tisserand carrying legible velocity in each of her fierce movements as the ballet’s doomed Swan Queen, Odette.
Though Tisserand didn’t quite make it through the Black Swan’s infamous 32-fouetté sequence, she more than made up for it with her poignant, beneficent White Swan. Black Swan is usually the more fun role of the two—seeing retired principal Carrie Imler absolutely kill those fouettés in her final performance with PNB at last year’s Season Encore remains one of the most incredible athletic feats I’ve ever seen—but Tisserand thrillingly bucked the trend of depicting Odette as a wimpy princess (an un-nuanced framing epitomized perhaps most offensively by Darren Aronofsky). Tisserand’s Odette wasn’t weak at all. She was a tough, conflicted queen trying to do right by her bevy.
As the gullible Prince Siegfried, Karel Cruz was the perfect partner to Tisserand’s swan. Classical ballet is lousy with princes, and he’s one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. His movements were fluid and gallant, his turns shockingly slow and controlled. Another standout was soloist Angelica Generosa, whose power and versatility—she danced several roles—reminded me a bit of Imler’s Nutcracker flower queen era. Dancing the part of Siegfried’s bad-influence-friends, Benno and Wolfgang, were corps member Miles Pertl and Ezra Thomson, respectively. Pertl strung his jumps together with fluidity and control, and a very hammy Thomson made dancing like a drunk courtier look easy, which it can’t possibly be.
There are numerous versions of Swan Lake, but Stowell’s, created specifically for PNB, is my favorite because it includes an entirely original final pas de deux (danced this go-round to PEAK FEELINGS by Tisserand and Cruz), which ends not with a joint suicide—as in many productions, unfortunately—but with Odette bidding her gullible prince farewell, and then following her swan companions into the mist, soon to be trapped in a bird’s body forever, and all because her boyfriend made a dumb mistake that hurt her, which, honestly, is a more dramatic fate than death and a better metaphor for most relationships.
But Swan Lake is really about the swans, and PNB’s latest iteration was fantastic—a group of 24 dancers who represented more diversity in terms of body type and ethnicity than you typically see in a corps de ballet, unified by brilliant technique. From the precision of the Four Little Swans, who dance together with rigidly linked arms in an absurd show of coordination and strength, to the swans’ final, frenzied crowding across the stage during the finale, the corps members and professional division PNB students who danced the swans formed an emotional backbone for the ballet, a roiling center in an already highly emotional story, embodying a state of simultaneous wild strength and mythical limitation. These swans are strong as hell, but they’ve also been trapped by a powerful man.
I doubt the ancient men who came up with Swan Lake intended for any such reading of their magical ballet, but Swan Lake’s images of entrapment and male violence have a special and new resonance in an industry that’s begun to topple sexist icons like New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins—and at PNB in general, a company that’s historically done a better job of employing a less homogenous roster of performers than others I could mention. Ballet is allowed to evolve, and in my latest visit to Swan Lake, it looked more modern than ever.
*In case you have regular hobbies, here is the plot of Swan Lake: Odette is the cursed Swan Queen, a woman trapped by an evil sorcerer in the body of a swan by day, and Odile is the sorcerer’s daughter pretending to be the Swan Queen. Prince Siegfried sees Odette in her human form while he’s out hunting and they fall in love. Only eternal love can turn Odette and the other cursed swan maidens into full-time humans again, and things are looking good with the extremely devoted Prince Siegfried when Odile comes in and fucks everything up by seducing Siegfried, who is 100 percent convinced Odile is Odette, an honest mistake given that both ladies are danced by the same ballerina. Whew! Anyway, his accidental betrayal means Odette will have to be a swan FOREVER, because classical ballets have no chill.