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‘Swan Lake’: A Classic Classical Ballet at Its Best

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Alexandra Cunningham dances the role of the Swan Queen in "Swan Lake."

If it’s true, as is often said, that dancing the lead in “Swan Lake” is what it takes to turn a ballet dancer into a ballerina, then a ballerina was born Thursday night when Alexandra Cunningham danced the Swan Queen role in the most famous ballet ever. Elegant and assured, she commanded the stage and dazzled an appreciative audience at the Community Center Theater, where the Sacramento Ballet Company will perform the program through Sunday.

Guest artist Susan Gartell of the Milwaukee Ballet will dance the demanding role Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.

“Swan Lake” was the first ballet score written by Peter Tchaikovsky, and when the ballet had is premiere in Moscow on March 4, 1877, it was a major disappointment. The music was considered too radical for ballet (although several of its movements are now called classic). The ballet was produced again in 1880 and in 1882, but both were equally disappointing. Tchaikovsky died in 1894, thinking “Swan Lake” was a failure.

A year later, however, choreographers Marius Petipa (the father of classical ballet) and Lev Ivanov created a version of the ballet that was an instant success. Since its debut in 1895, the Petipa-Ivanov version has been the most popular and well-known ballet of all time. It is this version that Sacramento Ballet co-artistic directors Carinne Binda and Ron Cunningham took as inspiration for their production, which seamlessly mixes new choreography with elements of the original Russian staging.

“Swan Lake” is a four-act story ballet about love, loss and reconciliation. It tells the story of young Prince Siegfried (here danced by Stefan Calka, alternating with Richard Porter), who, on his 21st birthday is pressured by his mother to find a girl and get married. Who he finds is Odette (Alexandra Cunningham), a beautiful creature who is under the spell of  the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart (Christopher Nachtrab). Odette and many others are condemned by Von Rothbart to spend every day as swans, resuming their human form only between the hours of midnight and dawn. Only the pure love of a young man can remove the curse. Siegfried falls in love with Odette and pledges his eternal love. Von Rothbart, sensing he’s about to lose his power over the swans sets about causing Siegfried to break his vow of devotion. He does this by tricking the prince into believing that Odile (the Black Swan) is Odette, and when Siegfried introduces her to his mother as the girl he intends to marry, he condemns his true love to her cursed existence forever. When he realizes that he has been duped, the prince finds Odette and begs forgiveness, which she grants, but which cannot free her. Devastated, she commits suicide — as does he — and they are forever united in the afterlife.

It’s a powerful, tragic love story and an intricate dance to pull off. Not only are the leads impeccable, but the ensemble, particularly the dancer-swans are excellent. Binda, a stickler for precision, shines here, moving as many as 18 dancers in unison. In one especially impressive scene, dancers in a range of heights enter the stage one after another, head and hand positions perfectly matched. Act II, which takes place at the Lake of the Swans, features Two Swans (Ava Chatterson and Katie Miller) who are so in sync that they appear to be twins. The four Cygnets and the 12-swan ensemble also shine here. It is a real thing of beauty.

The famous courtyard pas de trois of Act I (the townspeople’s celebration) was danced by Ava Chatterson, Mate Szentes and Katie Miller on opening night. A different trio will perform it at each of the remaining shows. At Act III’s  formal celebration in the palace ballroom, James Brougham is master of ceremonies as Spanish, Neapolitan and Czardas dances are presented as entertainment for the prince. It’s similar to the divertissement of “The Nutcracker” when various ethnic-inspired dances are performed outside of the classical ballet style. Sarah Hicks, Kaori Higashiyama and Christopher Nachtrab (Spanish), Lauryn Winterhalder and Rex Wheeler (Neapolitan) and Ava Chatterson and Mate Szentes (Czardas) performed with grace and style. Other pairs will dance in subsequent performances.

“Swan Lake” is what people think of when they think of classical ballet. It has been 15 years since the Sacramento Ballet last performed “Swan Lake” and it likely will be a long time before it undertakes the massive production again.  Sacramento has a world-class ballet company and this “Swan Lake” proves it. See it while you can.

Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L St.; tickets are $19-$70, with most in the $37-$57 range. For tickets, call (916) 808-5181 or go to www.sacballet.org.

Stefan Calka is Prince Siegfried and Alexandra Cunningham is Odette, the Swan Queen, in the Sacramento Ballet production of "Swan Lake."
Stefan Calka is Prince Siegfried and Alexandra Cunningham is Odette, the Swan Queen, in the Sacramento Ballet production of “Swan Lake.”

Featured photo by Keith Sutter for Sacramento Ballet

About the author

Jim Carnes

Jim Carnes has masters degrees in English and journalism and is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow in popular culture at Stanford University. He has covered Sacramento arts and entertainment for more than 20 years. He currently writes about and reviews theater, dance, music and events in the Sacramento area.

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