Dawn of a Swan: Oklahoma City Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’

22 Apr

It can’t be emphasized enough that Swan Lake is no small undertaking, and for Oklahoma City Ballet to put it on stage for the first time in the company’s forty-one year history was a tremendous accomplishment. With just over twenty-five dancers, OKCB barely eked it out, with most of the performers in multiple roles (and help from clever adjustments by artistic director Robert Mills, balletmaster Jacob Sparso, and répétiteur Lisa Moon) so that the company didn’t appear dwarfed on the stage of Civic Center Music Hall. The company also enjoyed live accompaniment from the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, a marvelous (and necessary) feat that really brought Swan Lake to life. It doesn’t matter how big or how small—Swan Lake is always going to be a beast for different reasons, and the OKCB in particular did a wonderful job of keeping their dancers healthy and well rehearsed. Just one injury would have been devastating; whereas a larger company could spare an understudy, OKCB wouldn’t have had any options. They rolled the dice and won the hearts of the audience, not just for putting on a great show of the most iconic classical ballet, but also for showing that OKCB is on track to do more.

I wouldn’t dare say I was an expert on Swan Lake, but I felt OKCB’s production was relatively complete. There’s no such thing as a perfect version—it’s like asking a person what makes for a good wedding cake. Sure, everybody knows what a wedding cake is and most people have a similar image of what one looks like, but ultimately they always taste different. And some people will eat anything but others may try but maintain their preferences. Balletomanes discuss such things ad nauseum and over time develop a checklist; mine includes things like aversions to prologues, jesters, and music edits—all of which OKCB had, but some of which made sense for what they wanted to accomplish. For example, the jester (danced by Io Morita) was one of the highlights, aided by Morita’s soaring jumps and frisky petit allegro, his legs flickering with precision as he ricocheted them in the air. Though the character served no indispensable purpose, he was nonetheless fun to watch. It was a great way to show off the bravura talents of dancers not in the lead roles. However, this skirts a precarious line too—the jester and the role of Benno, Prince Siegfried’s friend both performed jétes en manège, or a series of split leaps that circle around the entire stage, which should be Siegfried’s trademark in the Black Swan pas de deux, but the excitement of the effect was diminished by having seen it before. While virtuosity does captivate the audience, sometimes it’s important to make them wait for it.

Overall, I felt the first act was over-choreographed just a hair, and while Act II, the famous lakeside scene with the bevy of swans in white tutus was pretty typical but had eliminated the mime scene where Odette explains to Siegfried her plight, of being transformed into a swan by the sorcerer Von Rothbart. Obviously, OKCB reconciled this issue with the prologue in which we see Von Rothbart transform her, but I believe that the mime scene is important in some form or another because—and I feel like a broken record because I’m always saying this—it gives the audience a reprieve from the dancing. We can’t just stare at a constant stream of steps without breaks where something happens to progress the story. I was missing that in the first act as well, where it seemed too easy to get lost in all of the dancing, despite the beauty of it all. The best way to learn how to discern the different choreographic tools would be to watch a lot of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky ballets (Serenade, Theme and Variations, Ballet Imperial, Diamonds, etc.) because the mentality in creation has to be different, thus the devices are different.

Still, there was much to enjoy and my perspective was different from the rest of the audience who had never seen Swan Lake before. Eavesdropping on the conversations around me yielded only complimentary reactions and even with my biases I had to agree. Miki Kawamura delivered an outstanding performance as Odette, and Yui Sato a genteel and sincere Siegfried. Kawamura’s Odette had a hardier flavor, regal as a queen of the swans, opting to portray a magnificent creature rather than timid milquetoast. When Siegfried balances her on one leg, and she delicately quivered the other foot like a trembling wing, I couldn’t recall having seen a dancer reverberate with such speed, her foot practically a vibrating blur. As Odile she commanded the stage with a vivacious presence, as her manipulation of Siegfried turned into a source of amusement, and perhaps it was shades of Kawamura’s own personality shining through as well because she clearly had great fun as the black swan. Sato partnered her well, displaying his own skill for acting as a naïve prince and dancing the role in his uniquely quieted way. It was an exciting and pressure packed night for those two OKCB dancers, as the remaining two performances were claimed by guest artists from Houston Ballet that were sponsored by the Inasmuch Foundation. Odette and Siegfried are the premier dream roles for countless ballet dancers and to have just one opportunity to dance it demands a great deal of mental fortitude—Kawamura and Sato delivered, and were rewarded by a standing ovation, their efforts further recognized when the announcement was made that they would be promoted to principal dancers, in a company that had no previous hierarchy.

Oklahoma City Ballet has referred to their 2012-13 season as “Raising the Barre” and it certainly has been an exciting one for them. From my observations, they’re teetering at the brink, capable of making that jump—to the base of the mountain that is the development into a highly esteemed regional company. It’s no simple matter to hire about ten more dancers and find the funding to diversify their repertory, but seeing how they put together such a competent Swan Lake with nearly the bare minimum of resources is a hopeful sign. Even if they hired the necessary dancers tomorrow and procured the licensing rights for some of the current popular ballets, it would still be some years before the company could really gel together and settle into a groove. Until then, it may not be a bad idea to look into collaboration with the nearby Tulsa Ballet, something that has worked very successfully for BalletMet of Columbus and Cincinnati Ballet in Ohio, which has allowed them to put stage the large-scale productions and perform ballets that they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

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