October 26, 2020

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Classic ballet sparkles with enchantment

Dancers' virtuosic performance a jewel in RWB's diamond tiara

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/3/2015 (2061 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There's something so right about staging one of the world's most beloved classical ballets when celebrating your auspicious diamond anniversary.

The 75-year-old Royal Winnipeg Ballet -- Canada's oldest troupe -- opened its five-show run of the ethereal classic Swan Lake Wednesday night. The last sighting of its ghostly swans came in March 2010 with its company debut of the ballet blanc originally staged by Galina Yordanova in 1987.

Choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the lavish, 120-year-old story ballet, performed en pointe, tells the tale of Queen of the Swans, Odette, who lives under evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart's spell, where she becomes transformed into a swan by day. Only by finding true love -- enter dashing Prince Siegfried -- can Rothbart's dark curse be broken and Odette with her flock of swans finally be returned to mortal form.

The 150-minute production (including intermission) featured Tchaikovsky's iconic score with RWB music director Tadeusz Biernacki leading the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra throughout its lushly romantic themes. Also of note were Peter Farmer's opulent, Renaissance-style sets and costumes ranging from richly brocaded vestments to sparkling white tutus.

The demanding dual roles of Odette/Odile -- the latter is the Swan Queen's alter-ego, who ultimately tricks Siegfried into breaking his vow of undying love -- could arguably be the zenith of any ballerina's career. That soloist Sophia Lee has been given the opportunity relatively early in life to create her own lead characters attests to her star power. Her luminous portrayal cast its own spell, not only on Siegfried, performed by the equally mesmerizing principal dancer Liang Xing, but over the entire opening-night audience.

Lee crafted an achingly vulnerable, troubled swan, barely able to gaze upon her hunter prince, with every slight quiver of her head and flutter of her fluidly expressive arms when she first appeared during the second act's mysterious lake scene.

Thus began her emotional trajectory, including a breathtaking White Swan pas de deux performed with Xing, during which you could have heard a proverbial pin drop. This ultimately led to its seductive third-act counterpart, the Black Swan pas de deux -- including its 32 famous fouettés -- with the chameleonic Lee now morphed into the cunning Odile.

Technique is only a vehicle for compelling artistry; even a few shaky landings could easily be forgiven for Lee's deeply expressive role debut.

As a danseur noble, Xing matched Lee one regal step for step, with his exquisitely lyrical lines infusing the role with a sense of natural elegance, as well as gracefully bounding leaps. The two shared palpable onstage chemistry, with their trust evident particularly during the sky-high lifts.

More proof of Xing's mettle: RWB artistic director André Lewis announced from the stage just prior to curtain that the principal had been up all night welcoming his own new baby into the world.

Soloist Yosuke Mino reprised his 2010 role as the jolly jester, popping up like a jack-in-the-box and springing across the stage with effortless abandon.

Royal Winnipeg ballet principal dancer Liang Xing with soloist Sophia Lee  in the Act 2 pas de deux from beloved classic Swan Lake.

Royal Winnipeg ballet principal dancer Liang Xing with soloist Sophia Lee in the Act 2 pas de deux from beloved classic Swan Lake.

Second soloist Eric Nipp's Rothbart first appears as a bat out of hell, cracking the 2.5-metre wings of his spiny black cape like a Gothic anti-hero. He infused his role with rugged athleticism, lording power over the two lovers until he is ultimately vanquished by Siegfried during their final hand-to-wing combat.

The crowd-pleasing four cygnets that appear in lockstep -- and wings -- during the second act showed a few ruffled feathers. These baby swans proved more tightly synchronized in 2010, with this particular cast's bobbing heads and poker-straight legs not always perfectly aligned.

The radiant Elizabeth Lamont, Sarah Davey and Stephan Possin deserve special mention for their tightly honed ensemble work in the pas de trois.

The corps de ballet also enthralled as the flock of swan maidens, with their whirling white tutus catching light during the lake scenes.

The production also included local Polish dance ensemble S.P.K. Iskry performing the boot-stomping Mazurka during the third act's divertissement of folkloric dances, which also features Neapolitan, Hungarian, Spanish styles, as well as more courtly dances.

Swan Lake is a magical story that still resonates with its love-shall-conquer-all moral. It's also one of the most famous ballets in history. The RWB is wise to have included this perennial classic during its celebratory milestone season, which rises from its own vaulted repertoire every five years or so.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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