Ballet enthusiasts everywhere have swooned to the lushly romantic tale of Odette, Queen of the Swans, in the classic Swan Lake ever since its Moscow première in 1877.
DANCE PREVIEWClick to Expand
Royal Winnipeg Ballet
Visions of Swan Lake
● The Founders Studio via Livestream
● Runs through Sunday, March 14
But its Russian choreographers, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, could hardly have imagined their sumptuous "ballet blanc" would now be springing to life through computer screens and smart TVs, with the global pandemic having forced arts organizations, including the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, to pivot hard this season as a critical turning point in its own 81-year history.
"This latest production started by asking what can we do to keep the dancers dancing," RWB associate artistic director Tara Birtwhistle says during a recent phone interview. "Audiences will get a whole new perspective and a different way of enjoying the ballet, and we’re all thrilled with the results."
The six-show run that opens tonight at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Sunday, March 14, includes three 2 p.m. weekend matinees, as well as pre-show artist interviews and an interactive post-show Q&A, hosted by RWB artistic director André Lewis and Birtwhistle, with featured company dancers.
The ethereal narrative ballet performed en pointe was last performed by the company in March 2015. Its regal protagonist lives under the spell of the evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart, which sees her transformed into a swan by day. Only by finding true love — enter dashing Prince Siegfried — can Rothbart’s dark curse be broken, and Odette and her flock of swans finally returned to their mortal form.
Naturally, things look a little different this year. The RWB has pared down the original 150-minute show to create a more compact, 70-minute version, artfully filmed by local company Frank Digital last month in the RWB’s Founders Studio theatre.
"It’s a very up-close-and-personal look that you would never see from across an orchestra pit," Birtwhistle promises, adding that the dancers were kept on their toes with four watchful cameras following their every pirouette and grand jeté. "We wanted to really go deeper inside the ballet and you’ll see things you’ve never seen before. It’s really beautiful footage and made it very difficult to choose for the final cut."
Despite its scaled-down form, Birtwhistle says there are still plenty of feathers on this balletic bird; its narrative thread remains intact and only the larger ensemble numbers have been plucked for its latest incarnation.
Three COVID-19-friendly, physically distanced "cohorts" of dancers, wearing facemasks specially constructed to match Peter Farmer's original costumes, bring the classical choreography to life. Other design elements including lighting by Nicholas Cernovitch and sets also by Farmer have been modified for the smaller venue, with plenty of stage smoke used to create Act II's mystical lake scenes, the hallmark of the ballet.
The leading roles of Odette (also doubling as her doppelganger, Odile, the Black Swan) and Prince Siegfried will be shared by real-life couples Alanna McAdie and Yosuke Mino, and Chenxin Liu and Yue Shi, whose relationships mean they are able to perform physically close choreography. That also includes sky-high lifts during the heart-stopping White Swan Pas de Deux with its famous, mettle-testing 32 whipped fouettés — those are given to Liu — as well as the flipside, the Black Swan Pas de Deux.
Also still intact is one of the ballet’s most beloved scenes. The four baby swan cygnets, who normally perform in synchronized lockstep with arms entwined as a proud display of the ballet’s Russian roots, are back in the fold, albeit now performing several wingspans apart.
"It’s the socially distanced cygnets," Birtwhistle quips. "They’re no longer holding hands, which actually makes the choreography a bit easier for them."
The company has already dipped its toes into digital dance with December’s scaled-back Nutcracker. For that show, RWB principal pianist Donna Laube accomplished the Herculean task of performing the entire score on her solo keyboard.
This time around, after one full year of artistic separation, the company once again partners with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, with RWB principal conductor Julian Pellicano bringing Tchaikovsky’s soaring orchestral score to life.
This version of the score has its own interesting backstory: Given a heads-up by Lewis, who toured extensively with the troupe during his tenure as principal dancer, Pellicano discovered a treasure trove of chamber orchestra scores from past touring productions at the RWB’s downtown studios last summer. They had been meticulously sorted and preserved for posterity by archivist Gayle DeGagné, saved from when the company used to travel coast-to-coast with a live, 25-piece chamber orchestra.
The full set of instrumental parts, dating back to the 1980s and ‘90s, coincidentally happens to be the precise number of players currently allowed onstage owing to COVID-19-related health and safety protocols.
"I personally couldn’t be happier that we were able to make it work, and I know that the dancers are also very excited about it as well, and everybody at the RWB and the WSO, so I’m not alone," says Pellicano, now in his second year with the RWB.
He also affirms that, despite the smaller-scaled orchestra, Tchaikovsky’s renowned lush orchestration will still "read," with its contingent of strings, winds, brass, percussion and even a harp making the music pre-recorded at the Centennial Concert Hall in January soar. The archives also include sets of parts for Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker ("we couldn’t do Nutcracker in the same fashion in December just because everything was so new," Pellicano says of that show’s tight turnaround), among others, leading to future possibilities for livestreamed ballets, as needed.
In these uncertain times, it’s not a leap to assume the venerable company will offer more livestream ballets, not just to finish the challenged 2020/21 season, but possibly beyond. These online shows also allow viewers around the globe an opportunity to see the internationally acclaimed troupe, a kind of silver lining to the pandemic.
"I think it’s a good thing to do right now and it keeps everyone engaged, including our wonderful dancers and loyal audiences," Birtwhistle says.
"Another great thing is that we wouldn’t have been collaborating with other artists, including new designers and filmmakers, until this year. Of course we want to be back onstage; however, this is an excellent way of continuing what we love to do and I know viewers are going to be absolutely amazed."
The production opens tonight via livestream at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Sunday, March 14, including weekend matinees. For digital ticket links or further information, visit rwb.org