Milwaukee Ballet takes traditional flight plan for 'Swan Lake'

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Milwaukee Ballet’s Valerie Harmon as the Black Swan. -Photo: Jessica Kaminski

When it comes to producing “Swan Lake,” the size of your bevy matters.

Companies without a sufficiently large corps de ballet must either reinvent the Tchaikovsky classic to fit their capabilities or risk underplaying one of the world’s most beloved works, says Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink.

Milwaukee Ballet has produced “Swan Lake” five or six times in its 40-year history, including one version during Pink’s tenure. The company is mounting a new production May 16 to 19 at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

Earlier Milwaukee productions attempted to recreate the classic without the adequate number of performers or quality of dancing, according to critics. 

“The ballet couldn’t do a traditional ‘Swan Lake,’ because it didn’t have 64 swans,” Pink says, referring to benchmark productions by Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet. “If you’re not going to stylize the production (for) your company, the result is basically bad.”

Pink is re-envisioning the May production around the talents of his current troupe. He’s created a more realistic ending in which the principals meet their demise in a watery grave – assuming that one can call a story “realistic” when it concerns a woman turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer.

“It’s a silly story, if we’re going to be honest,” Pink says. “I’ve tried to bring a little more of a plausible narrative to the tale.”

Drawn from Russian folk tales, the story of “Swan Lake” concerns Princess Odette, who’s transformed into a swan for no apparent reason by the sorcerer Rothbart. While out hunting, Prince Siegfried comes across a bevy of swans and is about to shoot one when it suddenly transforms into a beautiful maiden. 

Odette, now in human form, explains the curse: The swans are young women who sail the lake as swans by day and return to their true form at night. Siegfried knows he must reverse the curse and rescue Odette, who has now become his one true love. But things don’t work out as planned.

Interpretive problems often occur during the ballet’s prologue, during which Rothbart (also known as Von Rothbart) casts his evil spell without proper introduction or set up. The sorcerer is sometimes portrayed as a demon or a birdlike creature. His daughter Odile, the “Black Swan,” aids his evil scheme by attempting to seduce Siegfried. She’s often played by the same dancer as Odette. 

As many as seven different endings – some happy, others tragic – have been created. Odette, Siegfried and/or Rothbart duel, drown, survive or ascend to heaven. Pink’s version closely follows the original narrative’s emotionally cathartic finale.

There have been many interpretations since the ballet premiered in Moscow in 1877. In out English choreographer Mathew Bourne’s 1995 version, the swans were played by male dancers and Siegfried finds his true love in the arms of another man. Although wildly popular since its inception, Bourne’s version strays a little far from the original, Pink says.

“It was a gimmicky thing to do, but it was effective,” Pink says. “People originally thought it was going to be a bit more ‘La Cage aux Folles’ or tongue-and-cheek, but it wasn’t. It was a very successful gimmick.”

Bourne followed his “Swan Lake” in 2000 with “The Car Man,” a homoerotic mash-up of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” and James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” set among a lower-class automotive culture in a fictional Italian-American community. 

Although adapted from Bizet’s original story, “The Car Man” uses none of the composer’s music – a strange approach that probably explains why Bourne’s second work is less well known. In the case of “Swan Lake,” it’s Tchaikovsky’s music that has made the work so popular, Pink says.

“Tchaikovsky was a guy who could write tunes, and its unbelievable how many tunes he has written,” Pink says. 

Ballet music’s simplicity is written to showcase the dance, and Milwaukee Ballet will highlight many of its premier dancers in “Swan Lake.” Odette will be played by Valerie Harmon and Luz San Miguel, who will also share the role of Odile with Annia Hildalgo. In Pink’s version, San Miguel will not play the two roles during the same performance, allowing the white and black swans to appear on stage together.

Among the males dancers, David Hovhannisyan and Ryan Martin will share the role of Siegfried, and Timothy O’Donnell and Justin Genna will alternate as Rothbart. Alexandre Ferreira will perform as Siegfried’s friend Benno.

On stage

The Milwaukee Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” takes the stage May 16–19 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, visit www.milwaukeeballet.org.