Ballet review

Far from another drop in the pond of traditional ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s opening night of Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake” was awash in sparkly new tutus, brilliant Black ballerinas and an emotional Ukrainian national anthem.

The return of Stowell’s production is historic for the 49-year-old company. Dancer turnover during the coronavirus pandemic left the company roster packed with new faces and big promotions. COVID-19 safety precautions restricted dancers to small groups until the large ensemble cast of “Swan Lake” demanded unification. Up-and-coming dancers debuted in the roles of doomed Prince Siegfried and Odette/Odile. And finally, thankfully, the cast of 24 swan maidens included dancers of color.

Beloved principal dancer Lesley Rausch reprised her performance of Odette/Odile (the heroine swan and the evil swan, to the uninitiated), partnered by new company soloist James Kirby Rogers. Even after long months of pandemic isolation, Rausch’s technique is perfect. Her delicate Odette held arabesques for impossibly long moments, Rausch’s tiny bourrées offstage executed with such precision that she appeared to float in a cloud of mist. Rausch is a master of her craft, with artistic expression that extends from her eyes to her fingertips. She switches seamlessly from the wrought Odette to the menacing Odile from act to act, every flick of her wrist communicating heartbreak or pure evil. 

Rogers’ artistry and technique did justice to every aspect of Rausch’s performance. Although much of Stowell’s choreography centers Siegfried in a supporting role, Rogers’ princely profile and dependable partnering reveal a principal dancer in the making. Dressed in luxurious velvet, his leaps seem to pause in midair.

Sparkly costumes are a key part of Stowell’s “Swan Lake.” Designed by Paul Tazewell — who won a Tony Award for his “Hamilton” costumes — Siegfried’s bodice and the swan tutus are simple pieces embroidered with crystals that shoot light into the farthest reaches of McCaw Hall. Similarly, Ming Cho Lee’s set and Randall Chiarelli’s lighting are less glitzy than other large-scale productions, but subtle changes between them change the mood of the entire theater. Bare trees hanging over the court are hardly noticeable during the busy royal festivities of Act I, but, illuminated under a full moon in Act III, they reveal a castle — and a romance — in ruin. This clever foreshadowing of the coming tragedy, executed by a delicate harmony of set, light, movement and musical cues, is what sets Stowell’s “Swan Lake” apart from other world-class company productions. 

Principal dancers Leta Biasucci and Angelica Generosa, and Kyle Davis and Jonathan Batista, will also debut their roles as Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried, respectively, during the two-week run. Former PNB principal dancer Louise Nadeau, who returns to the stage this weekend as the regal Queen Mother, coached the artists as they learned to become part of the complicated character transitions.

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“They must become so deeply immersed in the story that it’s not scary,” Nadeau said. “Each character [Odette/Odile] is so different, there is so much dancing, the partnering is so difficult.” 

Yet each dancer performs like they have been acting out this story of star-crossed lovers for decades. New corps de ballet member Kuu Sakuragi debuted his role as Jester with an unbreakable spirited joy for dance. PNB rehearsal director Otto Neubert’s evil Baron von Rothbart raises shimmering wings to transform an idyllic moonlit pond into a horrific place. 

Similarly, this gorgeous show started on a somber note.

On opening night, just before the familiar melodies of Tchaikovsky’s famous score settled the audience into silence, PNB conductor Emil de Cou asked the crowd to stand as the orchestra played “Shche ne vmerla Ukrainas,” the state anthem of Ukraine. A former home of the Russian composer of “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty,” now a museum and children’s school of music, was destroyed in the Russian bombing of the Ukrainian city of Trostyanets in March. 

“Swan Lake”

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake” runs April 15-24 at McCaw Hall in Seattle Center. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online: pnb.org/season/swan-lake/.

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