The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts came alive at the triumphant opening night of The National Ballet of Canada’s Swan Lake on June 15.
The ballet opens on the foreboding figure of Rothbart (danced by Piotr Stanczyk), an otherworldly being with large, menacing wings. His powerful stance and stage presence immediately pull audience members in, making them aware something incredible is about to happen. The ballet follows the sorrowful love story of Prince Siegfried and the white swan Odette, who is controlled by the sorcerer Rothbart. Odette and Siegfried quickly fall in love on first meeting. However, the Queen wants Siegfried to marry and asks him to choose from four princesses. Rothbart suddenly appears with the black swan, Odile, and she seduces Siegfried, successfully tricking him into believing she is Odette. When Odette learns of his betrayal, she is heartbroken but accepts her love for Siegfried. However, he is then killed by Rothbart and the ballet closes on the devastating scene of Odette mourning her beloved prince.
In this technically and artistically demanding ballet by choreographer James Kudelka, National Ballet of Canada Principals Heather Ogden (in the dual role of Odette/Odile) and Guillaume Côté (Siegfried) dance with maturity and grace. Their fluid partnering and trust allows their pas de deux to happen effortlessly, without any hesitation.
Ogden’s slow purposeful movements embody the fearful and timid white swan. Her arms move in perfect fluidity, while each arabesque and penché extends higher and lasts longer. She glides across the stage, with pirouettes that allow her to float like a swan on water. As she performs a series of arabesques and back bends over Siegfried’s arms, the choreography cleverly shows that she is starting to trust and fall in love with him.
As beautiful and technically flawless as her white swan is, Ogden showcases her impressive artistry and acting capabilities when convincingly portraying the deceitful character Odile in Act III, the counterpart to Odette in every way. Through Kudelka’s choreography, Rothbart instructs Odile to impress and seduce Siegfried by pretending to be Odette. Ogden dances the challenging dual role impressively, right down to her execution of the classic 32 fouettés, which impressed every audience member.
Côté’s character progression in the ballet also highlights his talent, as he convincingly portrays the journey of a lost man transformed into one who knows what he wants. His brilliance as a dancer is showcased in a solo in Act III, with every powerful leap and turn perfectly executed. The subtle changes in choreography from Act I to Act III help the audience understand his character progression, and reveal Kudelka’s choreographic skill.
The lighting, designed by Robert Thomson, dims and brightens at just the right moments in the ballet, guiding the audience along with the choreography. The theatre swells with the well-known notes from composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and the dancing and music become one, working together in harmony. Sets and costumers were designed by Santo Loquasto, whose décor in Act III offers a stark contrast to the white swan tutus and barren landscape of the previous act. The ballroom is filled with rich colour, and the subtle differences in the princesses’ costumes help differentiate them from one another.
A few costume and stage glitches were completely forgotten with the opening act’s impressive male ensemble. Kudelka’s choice to feature the company’s men was a fresh change from the female-dominant corps of swans. The men’s strength shines in grande jetés and tours en l’air. Naoya Ebe, dancing the prince’s friend Benno, and Skylar Campbell, a court Knight, stand out from the crowd on stage with their energy and physicality. The Wench, danced by the long limbed Tanya Howard, adds a force of fun into this mix, until the character’s heartbreaking exit, surrounded by taunting men. The highly anticipated and famous pas de quatre of the Little Swans is a striking change from the white swan corps, with the four women’s fast head turns and even faster feet.
The Princesses in Act III, danced by Alexandra MacDonald, Elena Lobsanova, Jenna Savella and Jordana Daumec, each bring a lively and dynamic energy to the stage in their solos, showcasing a variety of strengths from incredible leaps to leg extensions that never seem to come down. This choreography contrasts strongly with the slower and more careful choreography for Odette in the previous act. In the closing act, the strength of the corps truly draws every eye, as they move in impressive patterns. They embody the angry and fearful black swans, and their energy is a force to be reckoned with on stage.
The final moments of the performance feature the brilliance of the choreography, as well as Ogden’s acting and dancing ability, as audience members see Odette transform from timid and unsure, to strong and confident, reaching to Siegfried without a hesitation, fighting for him, until Rothbart ends it all.
Left to mourn her Prince, Odette’s heartbreak permeates the theatre, and as the curtain comes down, every member of the audience is on their feet.
The National Ballet of Canada presents Swan Lake from June 15 through June 25 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto.