“When ‘Swan Lake’ was first done, it was a complete flop because they didn’t get it,” says A.V.A. Ballet Theatre founder and artistic director Alexander Van Alstyne in talking about the upcoming production of the now-well known production. “Only later on did it become really popular.”
Sept. 23 | 8 p.m. & Sept. 24 | 2 p.m.
Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts | Reno, Nev.
It took a series of lackluster productions and the progression of ballet technique to catch up with the dramatic music created by masterful Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
“It’s a magnificent piece of music and a very precise ballet,” says Van Alstyne. “It’s the most technical ballet you can do and you have to do it a certain way.”
“It has been a fun one to rehearse because you get to experience all the elements of the characters. You have to be beautiful and innocent and graceful and then you have to be very manipulative.”
After the 1877 premiere, “Swan Lake” was critically disparaged, it took the 1895 revival presented in St. Petersburg two years after Tchaikovsky’s death to produce the version most commonly performed today.
“It’s such a dramatic ballet and love story,” says Van Alstyne of the ballet’s enduring popularity. “It’s the story of the beautiful woman named Odette who becomes a swan and is in a trance because of the magician Van Rothbart. He is trying to trick Prince Siegfried into falling in love with his daughter Odile.”
Disguised as Odette, the Black Swan seduces Siegfried at the ball. On learning his mistake, the prince chases Odette to the lake, but he is too late. The Swan Princess has drowned herself and without her love Siegfried does the same.
One of the most amazing facets of “Swan Lake” is that the polar opposite personas of the White Swan and Black Swan are almost always played by the same ballerina. In this case, it’s nomadic Chicagoan Kathleen Martin.
“I move wherever the job is,” says the energetic 27-year-old who was most recently performing “Giselle” with Ballet San Antonio. “So far I’ve lived in six cities: Chicago, Boston, Pittsburg, Salt Lake City, Boise and now San Antonio.”
Although Martin has worked with A.V.A. before, this will be her first time dancing the iconic role of Odette/Odile.
“It has been a fun one to rehearse because you get to experience all the elements of the characters,” she says. “You have to be beautiful and innocent and graceful and then you have to be very manipulative. I like to work on my inner dialogue. When I have a character I’m really trying to bring to life, I’ll dissect every step and think to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? What am I trying to communicate here?’ I can’t speak so everything has to be a physical communication. I’ve watched other ballerinas dance the part before, but this is my first opportunity to do it myself so I’m very excited. It’s a dream role for me and one I’ve always wanted to perform.”
Martin believes the transcendent themes of “Swan Lake” are essential to its everlasting vitality.
“I think more or less everybody in the audience has been in love, had their heart broken and had a feeling that there is nothing else they can do,” she says. “You try your hardest to make it work and somehow it all comes to ruin. I think themes, love and urgency and tragedy, are something people have felt over time so when they come to see the ballet, they feel those same emotions from maybe 20 years ago. Even though the world has evolved, people feel and relate to the same emotions today.”
For Martin and company, the music and choreography of “Swan Lake” remain unmatched.
“Tchaikovsky wrote the score sitting on a bench looking over a lake in Russia,” she says. “The movements directly relate and respond to what the orchestra is playing. I think the combination is simply breathtaking. Even if you don’t see ballet often, you can really feel the emotions that the artists are bringing to the performance. It’s a masterpiece.”
For this season’s adaptation, Van Alstyne has re-choreographed the White Swan pas de deux (as a duet), built new scenery and hired a cast of more than 50 dancers.
“Our company has evolved over time in our professionalism and maturity,” he says. “So this year’s production is definitely on another level. I also think it’s exciting that this is the first time we’ve done a fall ballet.”
A.V.A. now offers world-class performances in Reno four seasons a year.
“It’s a wonderful ballet to choreograph and the dancers are working really hard,” Van Alstyne says. “And it’s wonderful to have the Reno Philharmonic with Laura Jackson as conductor to support us.”