A full moon, over a dark lake. A rustling noise, of tulle and footsteps, as two dozen swan maidens alight. A haunting, wistful melody wafts up from the orchestra pit, and a beautiful creature appears on stage — part woman, part bird, all mystery.

“Swan Lake,” with its glorious Tchaikovsky score, is well over a century old, but its magic feels forever young. This version, choreographed by Kent Stowell from the 1895 version by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, remains the ultimate challenge for a classical ballerina, with its dual role of the innocent Odette (swan by day, woman by night — thanks to an evil spell) and the wicked sorcerer’s daughter Odile. It’s a story that’s thoroughly silly if you describe it, and a ballet that’s a little unbalanced (pretty much nothing happens in Act I, except for a few nice leaps, and Act III is traditionally but unnecessarily padded out). But once night falls and the swans enter, it’s mesmerizing; a perfect use of the otherworldly quality of ballet movement.

On Friday’s opening night, principal dancer Carla Körbes cast her own spell over the audience. Her Odette, trembling and vulnerable, doesn’t dare make eye contact; she’s frightened of the Prince (the elegant Karel Cruz) and of love. In their pas de deux, he barely seemed to be lifting — she flew from his arms — and her every delicate movement seemed to suggest a bird released from a cage, knowing that freedom was beautiful but brief. Körbes’ Black Swan was more feline than fiery, but no less dazzling, and her final moments of agony as the woman becomes a swan again were immensely moving. There’s a moment in the final act where we see Odette lift an arm across her face; here it seemed to be the lowering of a veil, a mournful goodbye to an idea of happiness. The evening was a triumph for the wonderfully gifted Körbes, who with Cruz received a boisterous standing ovation.

Loud applause, also, to the PNB orchestra led by Emil de Cou (the music’s still playing, happily, in my head); to the lovely sets, costumes and lighting (newly designed in 2003, by Ming Cho Lee, Paul Tazewell
and Randall G. Chiarelli, respectively); to former PNB principal Louise Nadeau, who charmingly returned to play the Queen Mother; and to the 24 dancers who became swans before our eyes. Floating in ever-shifting lines of white, they create magic; you don’t want the night to end.

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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com