When the curtain opens on Ballet Arizona's Swan Lake, the audience is transported to a world reminiscent of Grimm's fairy tales. Layers of elaborate trees, looking like a cross between delicate ink drawings and woodcuts used to illustrate storybooks long ago, line each side of the stage.
Scenic design by David Walker, courtesy of Texas Ballet Theater, is one of several elements making this Swan Lake a visual feast. The production features two acts, each with two scenes. For each one, the curtain rises on a new setting: garden palace, forest, ballroom and lakeside.
So too are costumes -- including the Von Rothbart costume designed by Leonor Texidor and Ballet Arizona artistic director Ib Andersen. It's all about the expansive wings -- fluid but strong and rich with deep shades of blue and green.
Von Rothbart is the bad guy in Swan Lake, a classic tale of good and evil that reminds us love can't always have a happy ending. The good guy is Prince Siegfried, who heads into the woods on his 21st birthday, eager to try the crossbow gifted by this mother.
Soon sorcery meets soap opera.
Siegfried meets Odette, the ballet's famous swan, in the woods. Only true love can break Von Rothbart's spell, making Odette and her swan friends human again. It looks like Siegfried in the one, until Von Rothbart casts another spell - making daughter Odile look like Odette as she lures the prince into pledging his love.
Composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the ballet was first performed during the late 19th century at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. Most accounts say it flopped at first, but new choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov performed after Tchaikovsky's death turned the tide. Andersen choreographed this production after Petipa and Ivanov.
Andsersen cast Jillian Barrell, Arianni Martin and Natalia Magnicaballi as Odette/Odile; Brian Leonard, Nayon Iovino and Astrit Zejnati as Prince Siegfried; and Ilir Shtylla and Myles Lavallee as Von Rothbart. Thursday's opening night line-up featured Barrell, Leonard and Shtylla.
There's too little contrast between Barrell's portrayal of Odette and Odile, and neither character feels played to full effect. Shtylla's Von Rothbart is sufficiently ominous as he manipulates swans in the wood, and appropriately creepy when he's orchestrating his daughter's seduction of Siegfried on the dance floor.
Leonard beautifully portrays the innocence, joy and heartbreak of young love -- often through small movements. A hand thrust towards the moon to show the measure of his love. A mournful face buried in his mother's gown. A gentle head laid against the back of Odette's neck. Two hands softly clutching a broken heart. And a final gesture that defies the ballet's typical ending.
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During the opening night Pas de Trois in Act I, Scene I, Tzu-Chia Huang's long lines and lithe movement were particularly graceful. But too often dancers failed to match the intensity of the music, conducted by Timothy Russell and performed by The Phoenix Symphony.
It's really the visual design elements -- a thick layer of fog hugging the floor as swans swirl within it, the strobe effect during a storm meant to separate Siegfried from Odette, costumes worn by elegant party-goers and folk dancers from different traditions, the orange moon against a dark blue sky -- that make this production special.