When audiences take in the synchronized whirling of 18 feathery-white tutus at the Washington Center for Performing Arts this weekend, they won’t just be enjoying the romantic tale of a prince who falls in love with a swan. They’ll be watching Olympia’s first local production of “Swan Lake” – and the result of $40,000 and a year of hard work from everyone at Ballet Northwest.
“We’ve taken about a year planning, designing the sets, and doing the choreography,” says co-director Josie Johnson, who has run Ballet Northwest with her husband, Ken, for two years. “We didn’t want to feel rushed; we wanted to make sure it was well thought out.”
While “Swan Lake” may be an iconic ballet, with its white tutus and romantic pas de deux, it’s an expensive operation and required new sets and costumes.
It also has required a big commitment from the dancers. The corps of swans has tricky ensemble dancing. And the lead parts of Odette (the woman enchanted as a white swan), Prince Siegfried (who falls in love with her), the evil enchanter Baron von Rothbart and his wily daughter Odile (who poses as Odette to lure Siegfried away) are some of the most difficult in the repertoire.
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So why do “Swan Lake” now?
“It’s the quintessential ballet, with that whole corps of white tutus,” says Ken Johnson. “Watching 18 swans do their steps exactly together is really incredible to watch.”
In addition, says Johnson, the organization wanted a new ballet, partly to celebrate its 40th anniversary. So the Johnsons picked “Swan Lake,” the well-known ballet with the beloved Tchaikovsky score that, as Josie Johnson puts it, would be “an easy sell.”
But not an easy feat to achieve. First came the dancing: While the Johnsons put their own choreography into Acts I and III (the courtyard and palace scenes), for Acts II and IV (the swans) they’ve retained the 1895 choreography by Marius Petipa that launched the 1877 ballet into worldwide fame.
This is the dancing that everyone associates with the ballet – the fluttering circle of the swans, the linked-arms pas de quatre of four cygnets, the shivering pas de deux between Odette and Siegfried.
“We feel now we have dancers that are strong enough,” says Ken Johnson, who conducted auditions to cast the 75-dancer show. In the intervening months, the dancers have worked hard, taking workshops from guest artists such as former Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Louise Nadeau.
“All the dancers have stepped up to the challenge,” says Ken. “They’ve learned that hard work brings good results.”
The most difficult part of Odile, the black swan, is often combined with Odette and danced by one dancer. At the 1877 revival, ballerina Pierina Legnani astonished audiences by finishing Odile’s Act III solo with 32 consecutive fouettés – pirouettes on one leg with the other whipping the dancer round and round.
Ballet Northwest has split the Odette/Odile role, and with Kiara Boggs as Odette, that leaves Johansen Olympia Dance Center teacher Ann Sanders to do those fouettés.
“This is my first Odile,” Sanders said. “I feel strong doing the fouettés, though it’s hard doing that number. Plus, there are very few breaks during the whole pas de deux-variation-coda that lead up to it, which is taxing. But it’s fun, and rewarding.”
Sanders also is relishing the challenge of playing a character who’s “evil, powerful and seductive. She has this sideways, crooked smile.”
Meanwhile, the Olympia arts community has rallied to the challenge of dressing Sanders and her swan cohorts.
Ballet Northwest’s Sponsor a Tutu campaign has attracted 35 people who’ve paid the $250 cost of each spangly white tutu – a cost that was obviously at the front of everyone’s minds in rehearsal this week as dancers folded them up sideways to walk around and directors called out strict instructions for taking them off safely.
About 20 people also contributed $1,000 each to the Swan Lake Society, which has helped fund the other Tyrolean-style costumes, designed and created locally, and the set.
Designed by Jill Carter and built and painted locally, the set drops show a huge moon, sinister pointed mountains, a midnight-blue lake and a Tuscan-style palace with weaving branches and grape vines, all tinged with a pinky-mauve that lightens the mood. The result: Ballet Northwest now has a new ballet for its repertoire, and the Johnsons say they’ll cycle “Swan Lake” into the season every four years or so, depending on their dancers’ abilities.
And mounting “Swan Lake” has improved the company itself.
“It’s made the dancers stronger,” says Ken Johnson. And for Josie: “It’s the first time we’ve created something ourselves from scratch. It’s been a lot of work and fun.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, rosemary.ponnekanti@ thenewstribune.com ‘Swan Lake’
What: Olympia’s Ballet Northwest puts on its first production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” with choreography by 19th-century Russian master Marius Petipa as well as BNW artistic directors Ken and Josie Johnson
When: 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington Street S.E., Olympia
Tickets: $17-$28, with discounts for students and seniors