Fort Worth — “That’s a lot of dancing,” remarked a nearby patron when the house lights at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth signaled intermission for Texas Ballet Theater’s Swan Lake.
Indeed it is.
Artistic director Ben Stevenson knows how to draw a crowd with a quintessential ballet for the company’s season closer. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Moricz, delivers the dramatic Tchaikovksy score, and that critical inclusion of live music makes it feel as if the sounds emanate from the entire theater, fully embracing the audience in the experience.
Clocking in at two hours and 20 minutes with intermission, the production favors lengthy dancing sequences over intricate narrative, giving many performers a place in the spotlight, rather than featuring only a few dancers. Set design by David Walker consists mostly of intricately designed fabric hangings, with only a few large set pieces needed to complete the stunning visual.
The ballet opens with the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart (Carl Coomer) turning Princess Odette (Carolyn Judson) into a swan, cursing her to live as a swan by day and human by night. At the palace, Prince Siegfried (Jiyan Dai) enjoys time with his friends, trying to avoid an inevitable conversation with his mother (Anna Donovan) about his future.
Dancing makes a good diversion, and this first scene delivers an athletic pas de six and a varied trio. An animated Dai proves that his acting skills are just as robust as his leaps and beats, as he sails through the pas de six with an enchanting Michelle Taylor as his partner, then uses light-as-air attitude turns to tell his mother that he’s not ready to marry.
The pas de trois with Marlen Alimanov, Alexandra Farber, and Katelyn Clenaghan especially turns on the fireworks. With a similar structure as a typical grand pas de deux, each dancer receives a chance to demonstrate superb technical skills and audience-pleasing maneuvers. Alimanov defies gravity with thrilling cabrioles and barrel turns, Cleneghan displays an enviable lightness in her allegros, and Farber breezes through a series of spicy grand jetés. The amount of gusto needed for a sequence such as this is usually found at the end, but surprisingly, it’s only 25 minutes in.
The boisterous dances of the ensemble and featured dancers stand in stark contrast to the next scene, when Siegfried meets the swans. Their world prefers delicacy and tensely sustained adagios, with fluttering movements and petit allegros to liven up the mystery.
Judson shines as the impeccable white swan, and of all her narrative roles, this one suits her the best. Clear pantomime explains her predicament, which can only be solved by a heartfelt declaration of love. She and Dai exquisitely maneuver through the pas de deux with breathless grace, and the swan ensemble equally matches their beauty. The little swan sequence holds together pretty well, although they don’t seem to quite match their tempo with the orchestra. After Siegfried declares his undying love, Odette returns to her swan form.
Act Two opens with a 19th-century version of The Bachelor, in which Siegfried must choose from a set of princesses for his bride. Rich warm tones greet the eye as the curtain rises, but it’s the lavish costumes (also by Walker) that garner the most praise. Each of the four princesses dance with her entourage, spotlighting various folk dances, and they pull out all the stops as they vie for the prince’s attention.
Robin Bangert (finishing her final season with TBT) dances a fiery Spanish segment with Joamanuel Velazquez and Alimanov, while Taylor and her crew move through a Hungarian sequence that begins slow and luxurious then lets loose with vivacity. Clenaghan and Andre Silva whirl around as the Neopolitan couple, then Paige Nyman and her group (including Paul Adams, who is also concluding his tenure with the company) deliver a sprightly mazurka.
None could lure Siegfried, however, until Rothbart enters in disguise with his daughter, Odile, who is disguised as Odette, but is performed by the same dancer who plays Odette. Confused?
One of the challenges and allures of performing this ballet is that one of the main characters pulls double duty as Odette and Odile. It’s not only physically demanding (especially with those 32 fouetté turns), but the ability to change performance and movement qualities to encompass two distinct characters is a daunting task. With Odette, Judson surpasses all expectations, but her Odile isn’t quite varied enough. The latter mostly looks like the former with a flashier smile.
The black swan pas de deux delivers exciting results (except for a bit of dragging by the orchestra in the men’s solo), and after Siegfried declares his love for Odile (thinking she’s Odette), Rothbart reveals the truth, and the prince must right the wrong. In the final battle scene, Rothbart’s defeat comes at a price, but Siegfried and Odette find peace and love in the afterlife.
» Texas Ballet Theater has two performances on Sunday, May 27 at Bass Performance Hall; and then is performed June 1-3 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Winspear Opera House, accompanied by the Dallas Opera Orchestra.