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Of all the grand story ballets, "Swan Lake" is the best-known, most often produced, and even the most parodied. For many, ballet is nearly synonymous with "Swan Lake."
Ballet West claims a strong connection to this most fabled of ballets: The company's co-founder, Willam Christensen, staged the first full-length American production of "Swan Lake" for San Francisco Ballet and later staged it for Ballet West.
Always an audience-pleaser, "Swan Lake" boasts an archetypal story of pure love vs. supernatural seduction, a hauntingly beautiful Tchaikovsky score, and the famous good swan/bad swan role of Odette/Odile -- known for turning rising ballerinas into stars.
Each of Christensen's successors as Ballet West artistic director has placed his own stamp on the work. Now, it is Adam Sklute's turn. His staging of "Swan Lake," which premieres Feb. 12, is the first full-length story ballet he has staged for the company.
Sklute's vision for "Swan Lake" pays homage to the traditional choreography of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, but includes fresh choreography meant to clarify story lines and strengthen dramatic impact -- especially in the reality-bound court scenes of Acts I and III. The new choreography bears all the markings of classical ballet, but is intended to infuse greater emotional intent and plot development into the dancing, resulting in less reliance on pantomime.
"I wanted to bring out the essence of what makes this ballet so profound and so real," Sklute said. "But in re-imagining it, I didn't want to change what is classic and so perfect. What I did want to do is bring out the drama that is inherent in the story, but often gets lost in the ballet. That was my mission."
Such an undertaking requires broad collaboration, and Sklute is generous in sharing the credit. He calls himself "the producer and conceiver" of the production, but credits ballet master Mark Goldweber for rechoreographing the court scenes of Acts I and III. Ballet mistress Pamela Robinson-Harris was given charge of Acts II and IV, the White Acts set in a world of enchanted swans. Utah Chamber Orchestra conductor Terence Kern trimmed and reordered Tchaikovsky's music to match Sklute's vision.
Sklute praises the Ballet West costume and production staff for combining visual aspects of two previous "Swan Lake" productions designed by Peter Cazalet into a new version that looks fresh and different at little cost. And he credits the company's dancers for making the new choreography come alive.
"I know this is my production, but these are the people who have done the work," he said. "They have made my vision come to life, and at times they have shown me and taught me what my vision was."
At Sklute's request, Cynthia Gregory, the American Ballet Theatre dancer who became the ultimate Swan Queen of her generation, served as production consultant while coaching company dancers last week.
Like "Swan Lake" itself, Gregory has ties to Ballet West through the Christensen legacy. She studied and performed with San Francisco Ballet in her youth, where she was influenced by Willam Christensen and his brother Lew. "She connects our artists to the legacy they have inherited and gives them an opportunity to absorb knowledge and style from a great artist," Sklute said.
A notable feature of Sklute's "Swan Lake" is an Act I court scene featuring 24 additional dancers drawn from Ballet West II and Ballet West Academy trainees and children.
"We like to fill the stage," said Goldweber, who choreographed the teeming crowd scene. "I find that it brings a warmth to the production --- all that energy, all those hearts. The intimacy brings people in."
An added benefit of peopling the stage with young Utahns is the sense of community buy-in that results. "That is something we wanted -- ownership," Goldweber said. "The Academy has just grown by leaps and bounds, and our kids are winning medals and scholarships. There is a deep interest there right now."
Ethereal scenes filled with swanlike ballerinas in gossamer white remain the signature of "Swan Lake." Those who know the ballet will find that Sklute's presentation of the swans' enchanted world adheres to tradition -- although he hints that his ending offers some surprise. "Expect high drama," said Robinson-Harris, who choreographed the ballet's conclusion.
Swan Lake's tragic story of bewitchment and betrayal touches a deep nerve in those who see it, in ways that go beyond mere romance, Robinson-Harris said.
"This story, the darkness of it, pulls us in and hopefully leaves us with hope," she said. "At some point in our lives, we've all been jilted by a lover. To be so heartbroken and destroyed, then to somehow be left with hope in the end -- that's the magic that we can bring."
American ballet legend Cynthia Gregory has a soft spot for Ballet West. Her first ballet company was San Francisco Ballet, where Utahn Lew Christensen was artistic director. His brother Willam set ballets on the company before co-founding Ballet West in Salt Lake City.
"I got so much from the Christensen brothers," Gregory said. "Willam Christensen was such a pioneer and had a great influence on American ballet from the very beginning. He means a lot to me, but also to dance in the United States."
Gregory is a tall, intense ballerina whose interpretations of "Swan Lake's" Odette/Odile during her 1965-91 tenure at American Ballet Theatre are considered among the best in history. She considers it a joy to share her knowledge and experience with talented ballerinas, especially when the subject is "Swan Lake," her favorite ballet.
Her biggest secret for finding the personalities of the enchanted swan Odette and her evil impersonator, Odile, can be summed up in one word: "Listen."
"A lot of it is in the music," Gregory said. "The music always told me what to do when I danced. It was the reason I danced. I think that was one of my strengths -- really listening to the music and allowing it to fill my interpretation."
Although the music Tchaikovsky gave Odette is full of tenderness and pathos, and Odile's is flashy and exciting, the two characters must have common traits, Gregory said. Otherwise, the prince who mistakes one for the other will seem like a complete fool.
"There is an underlying womanly quality in the Black Swan that calls to the prince and makes him think of the White Swan," she said. "It's fun to play with that -- there is a lot to it."
Gregory finds that many of today's dancers have the technical strength "Swan Lake's" leading roles require. When she coaches the ballet's lead couple, she concentrates on helping them create characters that seem real.
"We are telling a story in this ballet," Gregory said. "We want to move people, and touch them. You have to find who you are in that character, and who that character is in you. I just help them find that."
Ballet West presents Adam Sklute's staging of "Swan Lake," based on choreography of Petipa and Ivanov. Terence Kern will conduct the Utah Chamber Orchestra in the Tchaikovsky score.
When » Feb. 12, 13 and 17-20 at 7:30 p.m. with 2 p.m. matinees on Feb. 13 and 20.
Where » Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
Learn more » Ballet West staff will direct "Warm-Ups" discussions for ticket-holders one hour before each performance.
About 'Swan Lake'
The full-length story ballet is based on Russian folk tales and has a memorable score by Peter Tchaikovsky. Its premiere in 1877 wasn't a success, and most modern productions are based on the 1895 revival staged by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in St. Petersburg, Russia.
It tells the story of a group of young maidens transformed into white swans by an evil sorcerer -- a spell that only a faithful promise of true love can break. A young prince falls in love with the queen of the swans, Odette, only to be deceived by the sorcerer's daughter, Odile, into forsaking Odette. The dual role of Odette/Odile requires great technical ability and emotional range, and is considered the pinnacle role in classical ballet. Ballerinas who perform it must execute endless series of whip-turns and other ballet pyrotechnics and must be equally convincing as the seductive Black Swan and the tragic White Swan.
On "Swan Lake's" opening night, principal ballerina Christiana Bennett will dance the role of Odette/Odile, which she previously performed in the staging of "Swan Lake" by former Ballet West artistic director Jonas Kåge. Christopher Ruud, who is married to Bennett, will dance opposite her as Prince Siegfried. The two lead roles will be danced in subsequent casts by Katherine Lawrence and Thomas Mattingly; and Elizabeth McGrath and Rex Tilton.