A review of the famous Tchaikovsky-scored work, now at Pacific Northwest Ballet through April 19.
It doesn’t take much to make ballet unearthly. A ballerina, moving forward and backward in the trembly tap-tap-tap of bourrée (that trademark straight-legged, tiny-stepped glide on point), doesn’t seem to be moving in a human way; she’s floating, barely connected to the floor. “Swan Lake,” the great story ballet born in 1870s Russia, understands this disconnect: It turns its female dancers into birds, with delicately undulating winglike arms, tilted heads, nervously quicksilver movements. Twenty-four of them stepped onto the stage at McCaw Hall last Friday, on opening night of PNB’s production of the ballet, and yet “stepped” doesn’t seem right; it was as if they flew there.
This “Swan Lake,” choreographed by Kent Stowell but using much of the 19th-century choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, is a firmly traditional one, and it’s a beauty: The costumes, by Paul Tazewell, are richly detailed; the sets, by Ming Cho Lee, are simple yet imposing; the lighting, by Randall G. Chiarelli, lets the dancers glow as if bathed in moonlight; the magnificent Tchaikovsky score, conducted Friday night by Emil de Cou, heightens every moment. But all of this is in service to those swans — and, specifically, to the ballerina at their center.
The fiendishly difficult dual role of swan woman Odette and villainess Odile is perhaps ballet’s greatest showcase for a female dancer — and, on opening night, Carla Körbes seemed as if she had wings. In the early moments of Act II with Prince Siegfried (a soaring, confident Karel Cruz), her movements were fragile and frightened, as if she might, at any moment, take flight and disappear. To their pas de deux, she brought not just a picture-perfect arabesque but a sense of great tragedy; that something more than that giant moon hung over these two doomed lovers. Her floating arms, her soft wrists, the tilt of her head — the performance was filled with meticulous detail. And if her Odile, though sparkling, wasn’t technically perfect (the famous turn sequence ran out of steam), the return of Odette in Act IV more than made up for it — in her final, breathtaking transformation, we saw the bird take over the woman’s body, painfully and inevitably. (Körbes, who’s leaving PNB after this season, is scheduled for one more “Swan Lake” performance, at 1 p.m. on Saturday. If tickets remain, snap them up.)
Through April 19, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $35-192 (206-441-2424 or pnb.org).
It’s a long ballet, and occasionally a slow one; much of the divertissements in Act III play out like filler (though Leta Biasucci and Benjamin Griffiths, in the Neapolitan Dance, charmingly showed that they’re a partnership to watch). But you watch “Swan Lake” for the women in white — and, on Friday night, to see a great ballerina remind us that a nearly 150-year-old story can still, in the right hands, break our hearts.
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