Every schoolkid knows the story: A princess gets herself turned into a swan by an evil magician; a prince falls in love with her, and, after the prince's house is trashed, the pair hurl themselves to their deaths in honor of their doomed love. We may recall the plot line of Swan Lake, but probably few of us know that the ballet that was to become one of the world's most popular was a flop when it first opened in 1877. And who knew that one of the most highly regarded productions of Tchaikovsky's classic ballet originated in the longhorn state?
The Houston Ballet production of Swan Lake, greatly reworked by the company's artistic director, Ben Stevenson, closes Ballet Arizona's season this weekend. This version premiered in 1977 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, debuted in the states in 1984 and has since been performed all over the world, becoming Houston Ballet's flagship production and prompting curmudgeonly Washington Post dance critic Alan Kriegsman to call the company "one of the nation's best."
Stevenson, Houston Ballet's artistic director since 1976, has heightened the drama of the original work by telescoping the action of the story, restructuring it into two acts, and dumping entire sections altogether. He's expanded the role of the prince and punched up the relationship between the prince and his mother, which, Stevenson says, gives the piece "a contemporary, psychological resonance."
Despite all this trimming and updating, and in defiance of designer David Walker's gothic, cinematic set pieces, this Swan Lake keeps faithful to the spirit and structure of the well-regarded Royal Ballet production.
The enduring popularity of Swan Lake is usually attributed to Tchaikovsky's stirring score. But Stevenson--a former principal dancer with London's Festival Ballet who has performed the part of the prince in three different productions of the show--brings a dancer's perspective to the piece. His likely motivation was that Swan Lake is one of those rare ballets that affords its male lead something to do besides be a balance beam for his ballerina.
"In The Nutcracker, the prince doesn't appear until the second act," Stevenson says. "In Sleeping Beauty, you don't see him until the third act. Here, he's onstage for all four acts."
Those of us intimidated by tutus will be glad to hear that, according to Ballet Arizona flack Sarah Sawyer, Swan Lake is "a great first ballet, because the themes are easy to understand. It's mostly about a guy who falls in love with a swan."
Dumbing down the art of dance is a necessary evil in our town, Sawyer says, and her angle--that the athleticism of ballet should appeal to sports fans as well as the usual culture mavens--has at least one athletic supporter. "We had Councilman Cody Williams come to one of our free performances in the park last month," she says. "He told the crowd that he thought the dancers up there were the best athletes he'd ever seen anywhere."
Williams isn't alone in his awe of the ballet physique. "You should see their bodies," says Sawyer of the Houston troupe. "These people dance for a living. They're not out partying at Jetz or Stixx every night. They're here all day, dancing, dancing, dancing."
Houston Ballet's production of Swan Lake will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, May 10, at Symphony Hall, 225 East Adams. Tickets range from $25 to $46. 381-1096 (Ballet Arizona), 262-7272 (Phoenix Civic Plaza), 503-5555 (Dillard's).