Swan Lake is a tragic, fantastical love story about a prince who falls in love with a princess under a spell that has her morph into a swan with sunrise. It sounds silly today, and it was no less absurd in 1877 to its première audience in Moscow and the critics who panned it. Still, the ballet was kept in regular production for over a decade until, in 1895, choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov revived it in their opulent style for the St Petersburg's Imperial Russian Ballet, today's Mariinsky Ballet Theatre. Their production struck a winning combination in choreography, music, drama and staging that has made it a classic. Continued nostalgia for the ballet has kept it on rotation to this day in companies around the world.  

Laura Tisserand and Batkhurel Bold in Kent Stowell’s <i>Swan Lake</i> © Angela Sterling
Laura Tisserand and Batkhurel Bold in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake
© Angela Sterling
So convenient this nostalgia and Swan Lake's iconic status that allusions to it already draw the audiences' favour. This convenience, though, risks caricature, a pitfall of many dance companies who, in staging this ballet, have reproduced the likeness of the Petipa-Ivanov piece without fulfilling the nuances in drama and staging that completed the original production. Partly, this could be due to the demands (on dancers) of ever more diverse repertoires in companies tackling classical, neoclassical, and various contemporary works. Further dilution comes inescapably through time, but also as a result of the modern environment, in culture and architecture, that bring artists and audiences further from the time and place that inspired the original production. These factors summon greater effort of the imagination to relate with 19th century Imperial Europe. 

Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Kent Stowell's Swan Lake (after Petipa-Ivanov) showed the common successes and failures of staging this old classic in modern times. Its successes demonstrate that with proper attention, PNB's team of talents can bring imagination to life. 

If the company's attention had been divided, its priorities were clear. Rightfully, the production shone with a stunning Odette / Odile danced by principal dancer Laura Tisserand. Her triumph of the physical feats in this role never eclipsed her commitment to character. She even retains Odile's seductive charm in her 32 fouettés, which she executed cleanly (but averted from looking like a blender's blade). Tisserand's depth of characterisation carried the narrative in many crucial scenes even when her counterparts did not reciprocate. One such mismatch was Prince Siegfried, played by Batkhurel Bold.  Dutiful as he was, he never found depth beyond his stock character. Technical prowess saved him though, his commendable jumps and precision settled him easily into his courtly role.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Kent Sockwell's <i>Swan Lake</i> © Angela Sterling
Pacific Northwest Ballet in Kent Sockwell's Swan Lake
© Angela Sterling

Lavish costumes by Paul Tazewell made the production a visual feast. Odile's, with contrasting elements of sparkle, soft-edged tulle and sharp black colour, emulated the complexity of her character. Tazewell's costumes also brought distinction and vibrancy to the National dances. Unfortunately, the incongruous set looked considerably out of place from the imperial theme. Tall rectangular arches and oversized tree branches running in horizontal caged the dancers on a stage that already seemed too small for the scope of movement. 

The company of swans, all 24 of them, was nothing short of excellent. The inability to credit any specific dancer attests to their achievement in uniformity. However, mention must be given to the utterly delightful pas de quatre in Act II danced by Leta Basucci, Amanda Clark, Angelica Generosa and Nicole Rizzitano. Along with PNB's own live orchestra, the evening gave many reasons to see the performance again. 

Swan Lake seems to always have a place in dance companies' season line up. But companies still need to continuously inspire audiences with each production, by attending to all of choreography, drama, staging and the aspects that together make this classic shine. Modern times impose different challenges but should not limit imaginations. 

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