“SWAN LAKE,” through Feb. 23, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-869-6900 or www.balletwest.org); 2 hour 30 minute running time (two intermissions)
SALT LAKE CITY — Ballet West’s deliciously romantic and heart-wrenching program, “Swan Lake,” is back at the Capitol Theatre just in time for Valentine’s Day. Friday’s opening night celebrated love — and love lost — with high drama, dazzling costumes and unmatched technical vivacity.
At the epicenter of the massive production was real-life couple Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell (one of four casts), who announced their engagement via social media on Jan. 3. O’Connell starred in the lead male role of Siegfried, opposite Sisk, who starred as Odette and her character’s evil lookalike, Odile.
“Swan Lake” is the tragic tale of Princess Odette, who, with her handmaidens, succumbs to the spell of an evil sorcerer. Cursed to live as a swan during the daylight, Odette must earn the pledge of a man’s love in order to undo it.
When Prince Siegfried and Odette fall in love by moonlight, the sorcerer, Baron von Rothbart, intervenes. Using black magic, he transforms his own daughter (Odile) into the image of the princess and tricks Siegfried into pledging his love to the wrong woman. Their fate sealed, Odette and Siegfried throw themselves off the rocky cliffs into the sea below — freeing the other maidens from the spell while the pair walks together in heaven, united for eternity.
Like glimpsing the Mona Lisa or hearing Hamlet deliver his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, “Swan Lake” is one of the most widely disseminated cultural symbols of our time — and thus ranks high on most artistic bucket lists. It stands as the enduring image of ballet — even to the point of parody and ballet caricature.
Beholding “Swan Lake” when it’s done right — as was the case Friday — feels magical and surreal, like being transported into another era. Its luxuriously dramatic sense of impending doom, its famous "white acts" with picture-perfect swan tableaus, its romantic death plunge that unites the couple eternally and frees the maidens and a score that could be renamed “Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits” all combine to create an iconic work of art.
Artistic Director Adam Sklute’s production honors the original choreography of Marius Petipa with white gloved-delicacy, while also making the production distinctly his own. He adds technical dancing for his strong male corps wherever possible and has created some additional leading parts for the overabundance of talent at Ballet West. Even young trainees took part in the cast of 50 dancers.
Katlyn Addison and Sayaka Ohtaki radiated in their lead courtier roles, Lillian Casscells lit up the stage, dancing in a breakout role as the Polish princess. Emily Neale and Gabrielle Salvatto as lead swan maidens were breathtaking, and Jenna Rae Herrera and Alexander MacFarlan’s energy in the Neopolitan variation was contagious. The three Spanish escorts, danced by Hadriel Diniz, Christopher Sellars and Jordan Veit, wowed the crowd with their high jumps and lightning-fast footwork.
Everyone and everything orbited around the lead couple, their entourage of swans and courtiers brilliantly launching them into an otherworldly realm. Even the contrasting dark malevolence of von Rothbart the sorcerer, danced with melodramatic growl by Rex Tilton, was intensified by the loving couple’s luminous chemistry.
Sisk was a dazzling and astonishing technician — not to mention a stickler for detail. Take her arms, for instance; for the better part of two hours as she danced as a swan, they undulated fluidly to resemble a graceful bird — fluttering slightly from the shoulder to the very tips of her uncurling fingers. They seemed works of art — completely separate from the intricate and sometimes flash-fast movement produced by her legs. This tiny detail, as with many others, must have taken months, even years to perfect — and perfected it was.
As her character’s evil twin, she switched gears to play a cunning vixen — flirting shamelessly not just with Siegfried, but with the audience as well. Bewitching the entire theater with her knowing eyes, incredible extension, crisp technique and flawless 32 fouetté turns, Sisk proved once again why she is truly one of the crown jewels of the company.
O’Connell, too, was a force to be reckoned with. His long limbs launched him to the sky with ease and utterly filled the stage. Each turn was landed with seasoned grace. He has mastered the gravitas of the role — Siegfried is a deeply conflicted soul — but he hasn’t quite mastered the abandon of the desperate lover. Still, his strength and technique are masterful.3 comments on this story
Chances are, most audience members have watched everyone from Bugs Bunny to Bart Simpson portray the “Swan Queen” or heard parts of the legendary Tchaikovsky score in an ad for fabric softener or a favorite romantic comedy. Even those signature swan-like movements have become symbolic of the art form itself. Yet watching a well-executed iteration of the “quintessential ballet” is not only heart-stirring — it feels profoundly important.
If you go to one Ballet West performance this year, make it “Swan Lake.” Bring a box of tissues — not because of the plot’s forbidden love or even tragic death (the exaggerated drama and supernatural framing don’t really compel you to read your own story into it) — but rather because its sheer and overwhelming beauty will quite possibly break your heart.