The give and take between music and movement: A closer look at these unique challenges in Ballet West’s production of Swan Lake which opens today

It is fitting that Ballet West’s 60th anniversary season would include a production of Swan Lake, which opens today in the Capitol Theatre and will run through Feb. 17. Willam Christensen, Ballet West founder, staged the first American production of this Russian classic in 1940, during his tenure as San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director. At Ballet West, artistic directors have reworked the production from the original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and current artistic director Adam Sklute produced his own version 14 years ago.

After The Nutcracker, Swan Lake is perhaps the most familiar in the classic repertoire, along with Tchaikovsky’s score. But, its familiarity does not cloak the fact that it remains one of the most complex in technique and synchronization. The role of Odette/Odile is prized, as are the oboe and violin solos. To achieve the full theatrical impact, these elements must align precisely. In comments published elsewhere, Jared Oaks, conductor of the Ballet West Orchestra, explained why audience members should pay close attention to the violin and oboe solos. “There’s an immense amount of give and take, so it’s not just us playing the music. At times, the most appropriate thing to do is to be as musical as possible, within the demands of the choreography, and then allow the dancer to manage their own space and time,” said Oaks. “There are moments that require dancers to react to a certain note, and other moments when the movement dictates what we do in the pit. The latter situation requires what I call ‘placing the music.’”

Emily Adams and Adrian Fry of Ballet West in Swan Lake.
Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

The Utah Review reached out to the three Ballet West dancers who will be rotating in the role of Odette/Odile throughout the run (Katlyn Addison, Emily Adams and Amy Potter), as well as Aubrey Woods, concertmaster of the Ballet West Orchestra, and Karen Hastings, principal oboist, to discuss this challenge. Happily, Addison was available to respond to the questions for the deadline of publication, as were Woods and Hastings.

For the musicians, the following principal question was: “Both violin and oboe have significant and signature solos in Swan Lake which are rich in depth that certainly stand on their own solely for their musical merit. But, it also must align and resonate with the rigorous and indicate choreography in the ballet narrative. How do you individually respond to these challenging dynamics and circumstances in your performance?” 

For the dancers taking on the role of Odette: “Swan Lake is one of the most familiar and beloved in the repertoire but it also remains one of the most demanding in its balletic artistry. I would like each of you to share how you approach the challenge of aligning and integrating your movement and technique on stage with the music being played, focusing on the violin and oboe solos that are deeply embedded in the narrative arc of the ballet and the signature role each of you will perform?”

Artists of Ballet West in Swan Lake. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

Their responses are enlightening for what audience members should look for when attending this production, especially in magnifying the gist of Oaks’ earlier remarks. 

Addison zeroes in quickly on the desired objectives. “The Swan Lake music is gorgeous, especially if you listen from the beginning all the way to Act 4, which is my favorite of the movements. The way the strings move matches perfectly with the choreography and you can feel Odette yearning, and you can sense Odette’s love and loss in both the music and choreography.”

She adds, “It is almost as if, through the strings, she is crying out and telling the flock of swans what has just happened; as if she is saying that she had believed they would all be saved and be able to transform back into princesses. It is so tragic.” 

For Aubrey Woods, the solos in Swan Lake hold a unique place close to her heart for the more than ten years she has been the orchestra concertmaster. “This will be my third Swan Lake run with the Ballet West Orchestra,” she adds. “I’m grateful to say these solos are beginning to feel like an old friend and not as foreign as they once were.”

Lining up with Addison’s comments, Woods explains, “They are each so uniquely tied to the choreography. With the first big violin solo I am trying to create slow musical tears, then abruptly jumping to a more energetic gypsy vibe, and finally back to more heartbreaking tears with a violin-cello duet—all within three pages of music.” 

Emily Adams and Adrian Fry of Ballet West in Swan Lake.
Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

Hastings has played all of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, both as suites in a concert setting and as complete ballets, as well as most of his symphonic works. “Tchaikovsky is capable of the gamut of emotion in his compositions, but I especially enjoy his broodiness which is very present in Swan Lake,” she says. “The oboe sound is earthy and can often be associated with sad melodrama. I think that may be why Tchaikovsky chose to use oboe so much in Swan Lake. It is satisfying and challenging to maintain that aspect of my sound and musicality throughout a whole ballet.”

Addison also mentions how sensitively conscious she and her partner [the role of Prince Siegfried] sync their long arabesque and pulling movements.with the music, to ensure the audience will feel exactly what the music is expressing. “One of the most beautiful aspects of the rehearsal process is learning how to dance together – two strangers joining together to dance as one,” she explains. “The process has of course been emotional and challenging, because we both want to do it so well, but it has been an amazing experience. It’s a dream role.” 

Woods echoes this clearly, “My thoughts and focus are constantly with the dancers on the stage and how to support their roles.”  She adds, “My personal mantras are to play from the heart and trust my sound, sometimes easier said than done. It is a constant awareness challenge as the tempi can change depending on the cast and overall feeling of each new performance.” 

Katlyn Addison and David Huffmire of Ballet West in Swan Lake. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

Karen Hastings notes that she always prepares for all of her performances by listening to various recordings, while recognizing that tempos and musical phrasing will need to be different than what I would normally do in a standard concert setting.” She adds, “I try to keep that in mind as I practice and be prepared mentally to check my preferences at the door if tempos end up not how I imagined. We are provided with recordings from previous runs which help immensely to familiarize myself with the choreography and storyline. When I can, I visualize what is happening on stage and imagine my musical line as a thread weaving through the tapestry of the production.”

When asked to compare the experience of performing Tchaikovsky’s other ballets, what distinguishes it for her, personally about the experience of Swan Lake, Addison responds, “Swan Lake feels more mature. Artistically, as a swan, I’m imagining a fantasy world, and I must enter that fantasy as myself, as a woman. In Sleeping Beauty, the role feels much more youthful. For that role, I can tap into a younger Kat.”

This question also was posed to the musicians. “There is a prominent melody in Swan Lake that I first became familiar with as a little girl when I would hear it after winding up a music box at my grandma’s house,” Woods recalls. “This sweeping, beautiful theme always tugs at a few more heart strings in a nostalgic way than other (also beloved) Tchaikovsky pieces I play. Having just played Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty with Ballet West last year, the Swan Lake score is uniquely simpler, with an airiness and lifted feel, perhaps a nod to the swans. While I love Tchaikovsky and most of his works, Swan Lake will always have an extra special meaning with its connection to some of my earliest childhood musical memories.”

For Swan Lake tickets and more information, see the Ballet West website.

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