“It just goes straight to your heart from your ears,” says Emil de Cou, music director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. He’s speaking of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic score to “Swan Lake,” composed in 1875-76. “The great thing with Tchaikovsky that I find is that the response to the music bypasses thought and analysis. You’re not aware of what he’s doing.”
“Swan Lake,” with choreography by Kent Stowell, returns to the PNB repertory starting Friday. For de Cou, who’s conducted several productions of the ballet in other cities, it’ll be his first “Swan Lake” here since joining the company in 2011. It’s a score he’s loved since childhood.
“It was one of the first LPs I got,” he said. “I bought it before I ever saw the ballet live.”
From its gentle beginning to the fiery storm of its finale, “Swan Lake” tells a story of a romance, between handsome Prince Siegfried and a beautiful woman, Odette, trapped in the body of a white swan due to a sorcerer’s spell. It’s filled with trademark moments, known to even the most casual ballet fan: the famous 36 fouetté turns of Odile (the sorcerer’s evil daughter, played by the same ballerina who plays Odette); the lilting “dance of the little swans” meticulously performed by four women holding hands; the beautifully writhing, birdlike arms of Odette, probably the most challenging role in the ballet repertory.
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“It’s kind of like the Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony of the ballet world,” said de Cou.
The music, written on commission for an 1877 production at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, came from humble beginnings. “There’s a sweet story that came from one of [Tchaikovsky’s] nephews,” said de Cou. The composer “would sit with his nieces and nephews and make up little dramas, and he played a ballet for them called ‘The Lake of the Swans,’ and they would dance around and tell the story. It was somewhat of a known story, taken from Russian folk tales.”
But the original “Swan Lake,” complete with nearly four hours of music, was not a hit. “One of the criticisms at the time was that it was too symphonic,” said de Cou, who explained that ballets beforehand tended to be written in traditional set pieces — “written specifically to show off steps, not so much to tell a big story … People just weren’t used to hearing music written at that level for dance.”
Tchaikovsky died in 1893, aged 53, and two years later “Swan Lake” received a major revival in St. Petersburg, with a trimmed-down score and new choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The new version was a solid success and formed the basis of the ballet as we know it today.
Conducting the PNB Orchestra’s 58 musicians (raised from the regular 55 for this production) in “Swan Lake” presents many welcome challenges, said de Cou, most notably finding the right contrast and balance between the score’s moods. There’s the lyrical, tender music that tells Odette and Siegfried’s story, which needs to be “as loving as possible, which is not as easy as it sounds.” And the tempestuous, more violent music, can’t just be loud. “It has to be done in a rounded way — it shouldn’t sound loud. Even with the brass, it says ‘fortissimo’ on their part, but if it’s just loud, it doesn’t have that color that makes it an important emotional moment.”
Unlike symphony conductors (which de Cou also is; most recently for the National Symphony Orchestra), ballet conductors have an extra variable: the lead ballerina, whose preferences will dictate the tempo for a “Swan Lake” performance.
The dancers who alternate in the role have “different temperaments, different personalities — it’s very much tailor-made for each of the performers,” said de Cou. “It’s one of my favorite things about conducting for dance — they’re all at different speeds.” Six PNB ballerinas are currently rehearsing Odette/Odile, though it’s not certain that all of them will perform.
Rehearsing “Swan Lake” gives de Cou the luxury of wallowing in the score — of which, he says, he never gets tired. “There’s something about ‘Swan Lake’ — it’s hard to explain,” he said. “It was from a period of Tchaikovsky’s life when he was emotionally vulnerable, and a lot of that comes out in the music.” In particular, de Cou cites Act IV, when the “Swan Lake” theme suddenly shifts to a major key during the tumultuous storm in which the sorcerer’s curse is released.
“It’s a genius stroke,” he said, “one of the great moments in theater. Always when I watch it, I’m on the verge of tears.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org