It’s perhaps the most iconic dance segment in the world-famous 19th-century ballet Swan Lake. It begins in Act II, when enchanted swan maidens, costumed in pristine white tutus, enter a moonlit lakeside scene one by one in what’s often been called the greatest possible accomplishment for a corps de ballet.
It’s a sight to behold. From the upstage corner in a series of simple repetitive steps, the dancers file in. As dance writer Jennifer Homans describes in her 2011 book Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, the swan maidens “weave a serpentine pattern until they are ranked across the stage in straight, symmetrical lines …[from which they are sent] into a series of sculptured patterns that carve through space, break apart and recombine.”
Thanks to this season’s collaboration between BalletMet Columbus and Cincinnati Ballet, every one of the required 24 swans will fill the stage this weekend at downtown’s Aronoff Center. The total cast includes 109 performers.
“Having all 24 swans as opposed to fewer (sometimes a company will only employ 16) is like having HD compared to regular TV,” says Kansas City Ballet Artistic D irector Devon Carney, who was formerly Cincinnati Ballet’s associate artistic director. He’s been busily shuttling between Kansas City, Mo., Cincinnati and Columbus recently to direct the staging of the ballet, which features his interpretation of the so-called “white” Acts II and IV. The Act I and III dances, set in Prince Siegfried’s castle, are credited to Cincinnati Ballet Artistic Director and CEO Victoria Morgan and former BalletMet Artistic Director Gerard Charles.
This division of labor actually mimics that of the 1895 choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. The contrasting choreographic styles (worldly vs. otherworldly) are another of the ballet’s special wonders.
“I think it’s so exciting to bring two companies together,” Morgan says. “I can’t begin to tell you the difference in the energy in the studio. During last week’s performances in Columbus, BalletMet principal dancers took the lead roles, and we did a lot of the solo roles. When we all come here this week, it’s exactly the reverse. You’ll see BalletMet dancers well represented, but the top roles will be ours.”
To prepare, Cincinnati Ballet dancers have been in the studio at least 175 hours: five solid weeks of rehearsal at six hours per day. Dancers have been shuttled between cities in buses, while shared costumes are sent via U-Haul. Five coaches, including legendary interpreter Cynthia Gregory, have worked with the dancers in Cincinnati. “One of the coolest things is how we rehearsed the corps,” Carney says. “It’s very difficult to rehearse because they don’t stay on one side of the stage or the other — they mix and blend. How do you stage that without both companies in the building? Our answer was to use students from each city to be the stand-ins.”
In another collaboration of sorts, Cincinnati Ballet Music Director Carmon DeLeone notes that this will be the first time a Cincinnati production of Swan Lake has featured Tchaikovsky’s score played by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, thanks to generous support from the Louise Dieterle Nippert Musical Arts Fund. DeLeone has been instrumental (pun unintended) in working to have enough space at the Aronoff to accommodate the nearly 60 CSO members, which involves removal of the first two rows of seats. “It’s quite wonderful to have a large orchestra in the expanded pit, which Swan Lake deserves,” he says.
Cincinnati dancers Janessa Touchet, Courtney Hellebuyck, Abigail Maruna Morwood and Patric Palkens couldn’t be happier. “To walk into the studio and have 50-something dancers in the room makes me feel like I’m in New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre, or any one of the bigger companies in America,” says principal Touchet, who dances the duel role of Odette/Odile, the enchanted Swan Queen and her nemesis, the duplicitous Black Swan. “Everyone from BalletMet — from the director to wardrobe — is the nicest, they have been the sweetest, always-on-your-side people.”
“It’s inspiring to watch the BalletMet dancers,” says Hellebuyck, who dances multiple roles, “but it also makes you want to dance better and show ’em what you got!”
“The hard part is that we only have a week to rehearse together, but we make it work,” says Morwood, who also appears in more than one role.
Palkens, who is cast in the lead role of Prince Siegfried, says, “Any time the creative forces of two different companies are coming together, with new eyes and new thoughts, it’s a good thing.”
Cincinnati Ballet and BalletMet present SWAN LAKE Friday through Sunday at the Aronoff Center. Tickets: cballet.org.