Birds Of A Feather: Dancer Mary Elizabeth Sell on the Sisterhood of Swans

Classic Arts Features   Birds Of A Feather: Dancer Mary Elizabeth Sell on the Sisterhood of Swans
 
This fall, Peter Martins' Swan Lake returns to New York City Ballet for eight performances only. The full-evening ballet, which received its world premiere in 1996 by the Royal Danish Ballet, and was first performed by NYCB in 1999, features scenic and costume design by Per Kirkeby. Here, dancer Mary Elizabeth Sell reflects on being a part of the famed flock of swans.

This fall, Peter Martins' Swan Lake returns to New York City Ballet for eight performances only. The full-evening ballet, which received its world premiere in 1996 by the Royal Danish Ballet, and was first performed by NYCB in 1999, features scenic and costume design by Per Kirkeby. Here, dancer Mary Elizabeth Sell reflects on being a part of the famed flock of swans. We dancers love being swans in Swan Lake. The music: at times, slow and melancholy: is magnificent. The choreography is beautiful. The lighting is dramatic. There are moments that give me chills every time. Attending the Company premiere performance of Peter Martins' Swan Lake as a young student at the School of American Ballet is a very special memory for me. The entire corps de ballet moving in unison to Tschaikovsky's exquisite music is a glorious experience for both the dancers and the audience. There's a moment in the fourth act that always stuck with me. It starts with little circles: a white swan circle and a black swan circle. The circles blend as the swans are running, running, running, until seamlessly forming a wedge at the back of the stage. There is a rumbling of the drums that builds and reaches a crescendo of the recurring musical theme. The swans strike the iconic swan pose and a bright light explodes on the dancers. It's such an overwhelmingly powerful moment and it made such an impression on me as a young girl. Every time I perform it, I still hold onto that feeling. There's a tradition to the stylization of Swan Lake, a specific aesthetic: how to move your arms to look like the wings of a swan, how to tilt your head. We want it to be just so. Becoming an ethereal creature, portraying a particular character in one of the most well-known ballet stories: we can only do that in a few ballets. Being a swan is something that you dream about as a student. Once you do it, you realize that you've actually been preparing for Swan Lake your whole life. The unity and harmony of how the corps moves together and the patterns that we create are probably as iconic to the ballet as Odette/Odile. It can be challenging to maintain the precision of the lines and formations which create the illusion of flocks of swans. As enormous as the stage is, we are so close to each other that it actually helps us adjust and move as one, as you feel how the person next to you is moving. When we wait in the wings to enter, in a long processional line, we count the music out loud for each other. You can see each person turn to the person behind them before they go out, with this energy that says, "We're in this together, we are swan sisters."

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