The art of ballet dates more than four centuries but until the mid-1800s, a work's choreography was considered far more important than its music. That began to change when Tchaikovsky completed his ballet “Swan Lake” in 1876.
Though its Moscow premiere was poorly received, Tchaikovsky's ballet would soon become a repertory staple along with his subsequent “The Sleeping Beauty” (1889) and “The Nutcracker” (1892). Today, Tchaikovsky's three ballets are revered worldwide thanks to memorable scores that enhance the choreography and storytelling.
For the first time in its 41-year history, the Oklahoma City Ballet will present a fully-staged production of Tchaikovsky's complete “Swan Lake.” Company principals Yui Sato and Miki Kawamura will alternate with Houston Ballet guest artists Nao Kusuzaki and Christopher Coomer in the roles of Odile/Odette and Prince Siegfried.
“The story of ‘Swan Lake' is all about transformation,” said company artistic director Robert Mills. “The Oklahoma City Ballet has transformed over the past five years into a company capable of honoring the high art and transcendent power of this important ballet. Everyone who loves the performing arts should see ‘Swan Lake' at least once in their lifetime. The time is now for ballet in Oklahoma City.”
Joining the Oklahoma City Ballet for the company's season finale will be the Oklahoma City Philharmonic conducted by Joel Levine. The production features set design by Peter Dean Beck, of the Eugene, Ore., Ballet, and costume design by Lynn Bowers, Amy Panganiban and Michael Jones.
“This is a huge undertaking, not only because it is a big ballet — more than 40 performers with an orchestra in the pit — but also because ‘Swan Lake' is such an iconic piece of choreography,” Mills said. “There's so much expectation in terms of how well it's going to be staged and how closely you're going to follow the Petipa and Ivanov choreography.
“Arguably, it's classical ballet's most famous work and is often a defining moment for a company performing it for the first time. For the dancers and our board, there's huge excitement within the organization. I think it will change people's perceptions of how they view us.”
“Swan Lake” is a romantic tale of Siegfried, a prince who observes a swan transform into a beautiful woman. Under the spell of an evil sorcerer, Odette must remain a swan by day but is allowed to take human form at night. The spell can only be broken if a prince swears eternal fidelity to her.
The two fall in love but Siegfried later becomes entranced by the sorcerer's daughter Odile, who attends a party disguised as Odette. Only after Siegfried proposes is his mistake revealed. He makes a passionate apology to Odette but her fate is sealed.
“The roles (of Odette and Odile) are very challenging technically, physically and mentally,” said Kusuzaki, a native of Ehime, Japan. “On top of that, you're becoming a swan so there are nuances of a bird that you need to express.
“The white swan (Odette) is very feminine and vulnerable. In my view, she's a little bit embarrassed she has become this swan but she does command the entire flock of swans. The black swan (Odile) is a more seductive, confident and flirtatious being. She has a playfulness about her but she knows exactly how to get the prince.”
Coomer, who hails from Birkenhead, England, said he has tried to draw from his own life experience to bring Prince Siegfried vividly to life. He believes an honest portrayal will help audiences better connect to the story rather than just noticing the dancers' techniques.
“It's like meeting a girl for the first time and finding out her likes and dislikes,” Coomer said recently during a break from rehearsals. “I play a bachelor who meets this being that really just flips my life around. I like my single life but when I meet my soul mate Odette, it changes what you want out of life. The same thing happened to me when I met (the person who would become) my wife.”
Levine, who will conduct this performance of “Swan Lake,” grew up in Lakewood, a town in east central New Jersey that was a retirement community for members of the celebrated Ballets Russes.
His contact with those dancers, along with family trips to New York to attend the ballet, ingrained in him a love for the art form. After graduating from the Eastman School of Music, Levine served as conductor of the Maryland Ballet.
“I've known ‘Swan Lake' from a very early age,” Levine said. “It isn't just a ballet, it is the ballet. I've programmed music from this ballet on two concerts with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic because it features such glorious music. This is a milestone moment for the performing arts in Oklahoma City. It is a big step forward (for this company), which is very exciting.”
Mills and ballet master Jacob Sparso will discuss the historical significance of “Swan Lake” at 7:15 p.m. Saturday. Jane Vorburger, director of the Oklahoma City Ballet School, will talk about the fable of “Swan Lake” and the art of pantomime at 1 p.m. April 21. The Sunday performance will be followed by a “Meet and Greet” with the dancers. Cookies and punch will be served.