Given Natalie Portman’s Academy Award-winning performance in 2010’s Black Swan, the ballet Swan Lake is fully ingrained into today's cultural perception of dance—for better or for worse.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s current production of Swan Lake captures the same emotion and intensity, with principal dancer Carla Körbes stealing the show in her roles as the black and white swans, a mesmerizing performance and resounding success in one of the most difficult roles in the world of ballet.
Often lauded as the most popular classical ballets of all time, Swan Lake tells the story of Prince Siegfried (Karel Cruz), a young man is told on his 21st birthday that he must marry. Distraught by the news he gathers his friends and goes hunting, only to discover a group of swan-like women, trapped under a powerful spell by the evil Baron von Rothbart (Otto Neubert). By day they are swans—only at night do they turn into real women. When the prince sees Odette (Carla Körbes) he immediately falls in love with her, but as night turns into morning von Rothbart tells him the only way he can set Odette free is to be faithful to her forever. The next day the queen (Louise Nadeau) throws a ball for her son’s birthday, and when von Rothbart arrives with his daughter Odile (Carla Körbes) Siegfried is convinced that it is Odette in disguise and confesses his love, only to find out that it actually is another woman, and he has broken his vow as Odette watches through the window.
Choreographed and staged by Founding Artistic Directors Kent Stowell Francia Russell respectively, the production is precise and visually interesting—complicated footwork, expressive motions and ethereal swan scenes use lines and constantly moving staggered groups to make it look like there are more than 24 swans on stage. As Odette Körbes is captivating and her dancing is flawless (except a few weak fouetté pirouettes at the end). In her pas de deux with Cruz she is so deeply in her character that you can feel the emotion in the audience—every look, every flutter of her graceful arms (her carriage and arms are controlled and beautiful) is full of emotion. On opening night the pas in Act II had the rare sparks of absolute ballet magic that cannot be explained in terms of technique or grace or presence—Körbes’ performance was one of the best and most emotional I’ve ever seen. She transforms easily from Odette to Odile, and dances that part wonderfully as well, but it is hard to get past the brilliance of that second act.
Visually, this production was a stunner. Large sets (Ming Cho Lee) create ornate castles and courtyards with pillars and windows, and large trees line the sides of the stage against a gigantic harvest moon—a haunting backdrop for the swans’ dance. The costumes (Paul Tazewell) are elaborate, but not gaudy—they are the perfect accompaniment to such a fantastical ballet.
Certainly the rest of the Swan Lake cast danced beautifully (for the most part), and Cruz was an outstanding lead—it is easy to see that he and Körbes perform together often. Their movement is natural and in synch, and they have a wonderful onstage chemistry. But just like Natalie Portman killed it in Black Swan, for Körbes, this certainly is the role of a lifetime--yes, she's danced it before, but it takes a prima ballerina to bring such deep soul to such a difficult role.
Swan Lake runs through April 21. Tickets here.
Above: Carla Körbes and Karel Cruz in Swan Lake. Photo by Angela Sterling.