Swan Queens Speak

Classic Arts Features   Swan Queens Speak
As The Nutcracker season ends, New York City Ballet presents another of Tschaikovsky's full-length story ballets, Swan Lake, to begin the winter repertory season. Astrida Woods talks to four NYCB dancers about the demands and delights in the dual role of Odette/Odile.

it takes a champion marathon runner roughly two-and-a-half hours to complete a race‹about the same amount of time and stamina that it takes a ballerina to perform the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. In addition to endurance, this star-vehicle‹a watershed in any dancer's career‹demands technical brilliance, Oscar-worthy acting, and profound musicality.

Next month Peter Martins' full-length staging of Swan Lake returns to New York City Ballet for 12 performances only. Created for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1996, and premiered by NYCB in 1999, Mr. Martins' production, featuring sets and costumes by acclaimed Danish painter Per Kirkeby, has been called an art lover's dream. And in true New York City Ballet fashion, where the dancing comes first, this is a streamlined version of the classic full-length work that retains nearly all of the Tschaikovsky score, while eliminating much of the mime sequences, as well as two of the ballet's three intermissions, for a fast-paced and seamless evening of theater.

I recently spoke with four New York City Ballet principal dancers who have performed the role of Odette/Odile in the production. They talked about how they deal with the multiple challenges of one of the greatest and most demanding roles for a ballerina, and how they savor the rewards inherent in portraying this multi-layered character.

For Miranda Weese, a very emotionally invested Swan Queen, it's all about the music, the mood, and the connection with her partner. In preparing for the role, Ms. Weese has drawn inspiration from many sources, most notably, watching tapes of legendary ballerina Natalia Makarova. "She did it for me. You can just feel her intensity‹so dramatic, so expressive with her arms and feet." Ms. Weese says, "With NYCB I have the freedom to experiment with the character. Each time I approach the role, I allow myself to go deeper with my emotions and with the music." Her original partner, Peter Boal as Prince Siegfried, was a key connection to her performance. "Peter and I sat down and really worked it out so that we were telling the same story‹it was a co-creation. I'll miss him." (Mr. Boal retired from NYCB in June and is now artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.)"The drama of Act II comes easily for me," says Ms. Weese. "From my very first entrance as the White Swan I'm creature-like and somewhat frazzled. I don't yet feel like a woman, but by the time I reach the pas de deux, Odette has given over to love."

In Act III, the Black Swan generates a completely different energy for Ms. Weese. "As Odile, I have to be very seductive and powerfully alluring, but never evil," she says. "I also have to show Siegfried hints of Odette's softer, more ethereal side. So I switch back and forth to capture the prince's heart." Ms. Weese sees the demonic 32 fouettés, the notoriously difficult climax to the Black Swan's variation, as a celebration of her triumph over the prince, who has pledged his love for Odile (believing she's Odette) and thus dooms Odette to remain eternally a swan.

For each dancer portraying Odette/Odile in the NYCB production there is a great deal of freedom in determining how to interpret the role. For Wendy Whelan, that proved to be a mixed blessing. When Ms. Whelan was first assigned the role in 1999, she didn't know where to begin. "Because of our repertory, I had not danced a lot of full-length ballets," she says. So she watched every available tape of Swan Lake and decided she would concentrate on building her strength. "I was a nervous wreck. I didn't know what to focus on. Do I go for the acting or the stamina?" She reasoned that since City Ballet is not known for dancers who act‹citing Balanchine's motto, "Don't act, just dance"‹Ms. Whelan opted for stamina. However, after two weeks of daily run-throughs for her performance, she tore a muscle and missed her New York debut. But now having done the role many times, Ms. Whelan says she has to pace herself. "I had to learn that you can't just go full throttle through a full-length ballet."

Ms. Whelan admits to being more at home as the White Swan. She says, "I'm not comfortable being evil on stage except in Jerome Robbins' The Cage." Ms. Whelan differentiates between Robbins' predatory creature, which she dances with such conviction, and Odile. "The insect in The Cage is acting on instinct, while Odile totally knows what she is doing." Like Ms. Weese, Ms. Whelan also turned to Makarova for inspiration. "For the part of Odile I wanted Makarova's broad, luscious, wicked smile," she says.

Slim and fair-haired, Jennie Somogyi is a fearless dancer with a fiery technique, whose first Swan Lake was even more challenging than she expected. A back injury sidelined her scheduled partner just hours before the curtain, and it looked as if Ms. Somogyi's debut would be postponed. "At that point I was disappointed because I had my momentum going," she admits. Then Charles Askegard volunteered to step in for her injured prince. There wasn't time for rehearsal, so they just tried a couple of lifts on stage, and then she went off to put on her makeup for the performance.

Not prone to high anxiety, the plucky ballerina scored a success. "I just danced in the moment. I was swept away by the music. From the beginning of rehearsals, I had an affinity for both roles, particularly the White Swan. But in Act III as Odile, I just tried to let the dancing dramatize the story. I didn't worry about the 32 fouettés," she says.

For the long-limbed Maria Kowroski, Odile came more naturally. "I feel more comfortable in the Black Swan even though, technically, it's harder for me," she says. "Peter [Martins] advised me to try to forget about the technique and think about the character. That definitely helps me stay calm." But she is still bedeviled by those 32 fouettés. Blame Pierina Legnani, who danced Odette/Odile in the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov production; her special trick was fouettés, and she inserted them into her solo. Most classical ballet companies, and their audiences, now expect them. "I want to do them, and I know I can, I just have to find the right pacing," says Ms. Kowroski. In 2003 Ms. Kowroski was invited to dance Odette/Odile with the venerable Russian ballet company the Kirov. Still awed by that experience she says, "I was honored and scared, but I was up for it." Ulyana Lopatkina, a principal dancer with the Kirov, worked extensively with Ms. Kowroski on Odette/Odile. The Russian ballerina spoke little English, but nevertheless the two developed a great rapport. "I could look in her eyes and know exactly what she was thinking and how I should do it," says the American ballerina. When Ms. Kowroski arrived in Russia, the coaches there objected to her arms. "I was trained to do arms a certain way ‹small flutters. They would say, 'No, no, long arms, long arms, you are not a duck, you are a swan.'"

Ms. Kowroski danced the Kirov version with Danila Korsuntsev, a six-foot-four-inch principal who, Ms. Kowroski says, "took very good care of me." She also triumphed in those dastardly fouettés. "It was on a raked stage and it was really scary, but I was determined. Everybody on that stage does them, I had to do them, I had no choice. That was the first time I had ever done all 32 fouettés on stage."

After the fouettés comes Act IV, which all the ballerinas love. Ms. Kowroski says, "The technical demands are over and I'm completely exhausted, so I just let myself wind down with the beautiful music and focus on the emotions of the character."

In Mr. Martins' staging there is no intermission between Acts III and IV, so transitioning from the high-voltage Odile to the limpid and sad Odette has to happen during a quick costume change. "You can really use the emotional and physical exhaustion from Act III to ease back into Odette's character," says Ms. Weese.

Ultimately, Odette/Odile is a ballerina's lifetime project. For Ms. Weese that is part of the beauty of the role. "The internal duality and also the physical duality … I feel like there is still so much that I haven't even begun to tap into."

Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine and the dance editor of Show Business Weekly.

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