‘Swan Lake’ returns with local dancers, mystery ending

‘Swan Lake’ returns with dozens of local dancers; but will the story end happily?

Contributing writerMay 9, 2014 

Ballet Northwest’s “Swan Lake” returns to The Washington Center for the Performing Arts this weekend.

The Tchaikovsky ballet, about a princess cursed to spend her days as a swan, vies with the composer’s “The Nutcracker” as one of the most iconic of all classical ballets. It’s been performed countless times since its debut in 1877.

But what remains a mystery about the well-known ballet is how any given production will end. Will the swan princess and her prince live happily ever after?

“Sometimes, the prince and the white swan Odette live happily ever after, and other times they profess their love to each other and die together,” said Ken Johnson, who directs Ballet Northwest with his wife, Josie Johnson. “There’s the happier ending or the more tragic ending.”

While the ending might be a mystery, those who saw the company’s production of the ballet when it debuted in 2010 know that it’s a complex and challenging one, with elaborate costumes and sets and exhausting choreography.

Among the highlights is the synchronized dancing by Odette’s court of 18 swan maidens, costumed in professionally made white tutus and swan headpieces.

“We premiered the ballet four years ago for Ballet Northwest’s 40th anniversary,” Ken Johnson said. “It was met with standing ovations and a great response from the crowd.”

That response — along with the fact that there are many strong dancers in the company this year — inspired the Johnsons to produce the ballet again. It combines Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s traditional choreography for the swan scenes with choreography by the Johnsons, who’ve made some updates and added new dances in the ballroom scene for this year’s production.

There are 80 local dancers ages 12 and older performing in the production, which opened Thursday with a daytime performance for nearly 1,000 students from area elementary schools and continues with four shows this weekend.

To prepare the dancers for some particularly challenging roles, the company brought in guest coaches to work with them. Julie Tobiason, a former principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and a teacher at the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, worked with the swans, and Xijun Su, a former professional dancer and teacher at the Johansen Olympia Dance Center, the school affiliated with Ballet Northwest, worked with the ballet’s lead couples.

Guest artist Andrew Pontius, who grew up in Bremerton, will dance the role of Prince Siegfried, who falls in love with the cursed Odette.

Pontius trained with the Pacific Northwest Ballet School and at the Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., and has danced professionally with companies in Germany and Spain.

“We’re really excited,” Ken Johnson said. “We were lucky to catch him between gigs.”

The ballet also features the touch of another expert: set designer Jill Carter, well-known for her work with Harlequin Productions and Olympia Family Theater.

Ballet Northwest varies its spring ballets, aiming to keep both dancers and audiences engaged.

“For a lot of our shows, we tend to go with the full-length ballets that a lot of professional ballet companies do,” Josie Johnson said. “Our students are so dedicated and well-trained to be able to perform these that we think it’s important to bring that to the Olympia area.”

For next spring, the dancers will have a new challenge.

“We’ll premier a new ballet, ‘Don Quixote,’” Josie Johnson said. “We’ll be working on that from scratch — brand new costumes, sets and choreography.”

Swan Lake

What: Olympia’s Ballet Northwest presents Tchaikovsky’s iconic “Swan Lake,” with choreography by 19th-century Russian master Marius Petipa and by artistic directors Ken and Josie Johnson.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $23-$30 for adults, $19-$26 for students and seniors, $14-$18 for children 12 and younger

More information: 360-753-8586 or balletnorthwest.org

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