Women in pointe shoes flit across the stage, twirling and leaping in unison. An evil sorcerer casts a curse that turns maidens into swans. A young prince searches for his bride.
Though Swan Lake is one of the most recognized ballets, there’s more to this boy-meets-enchanted-swan love story than meets the eye.
Director of the JCC of Mid-Westchester’s Dance School Kristen McGrew gave a presentation at the JCC April 2 about what goes into the performance of the ballet classic.
Four acts tell the tragic love story of the swan queen Odette — enchanted to become a swan during the day and a human at midnight — and Prince Siegfried, a man who just celebrated his birthday but is now expected to find a bride.
Siegfried goes to a lake where he finds a flock of swans stepping onto the shore, transforming into beautiful maidens. He learns Odette is under Von Rothbart’s spell, but the two fall in love with one another. The only thing that can break the spell is for Siegfried to declare his love for Odette.
Rothbart realizes Odette fell in love with Siegfried and tries to intervene by tricking Siegfried into declaring his love for his daughter Odile the following night. His plan is successful. Siegfried realizes something’s wrong and goes to the lake where he finds Odette dying of a broken heart.
From there, ballet companies have taken different approaches on how to end the show.
McGrew said her favorite ending is the one in which everyone dies. Siegfried kills Von Rothbart and then dies with Odette in the water. Other endings include only Rothbart dying, or Rothbart and Siegfried dying while Odette remains a swan forever.
McGrew performed as a page in Swan Lake in her earlier days as a dancer.
She was fascinated by Rothbart’s costume.
“It had sticks and long pieces of fabric that made up the wings,” she said. “I wanted to be Von Rothbart. It wasn’t until I got my pointe shoes that I changed my mind about that.”
McGrew, 46, received her early training in Tennessee under Anna-Marie Holmes, a world-renowned ballerina who has performed with the American Ballet Theatre. In her career, McGrew danced with several companies, including the Charleston Ballet Theater and the Ballet Theater of Pennsylvania. In addition to her role as director of the JCC Dance School, she currently teaches on the ballet faculty for the junior division at The Ailey School in New York City.
Now that McGrew is in a place in her career where she does more observing than dancing, she sees performances with a different perspective.
“It’s very different,” she said. “The things you enjoy doing on stage are not the same as what you enjoy watching.”
In the presentation, McGrew talked about some of the most iconic parts of the performance, like the Dance of the Little Swans, the 32-fouette turns by Odile and the pas de deux between Odette and Siegfried.
While a professional performance of “Swan Lake” may look easy and effortless, McGrew pointed out the amount of work and rehearsal that goes into everything.
The Dance of the Little Swans alone involves four dancers arm-in-arm with identical movements.
“The steps themselves aren’t difficult,” McGrew said. “But the tempo with other people makes it difficult. You can’t move your body, you’re very restricted and the hands get very sweaty.”
Rosin is used for dancers’ pointe shoes to cut down on any slippage. For that particular dance, the dancers apply rosin to their hands to keep their grasp from slipping.
And, for a minute and a half, the dancers go through quick bursts of energy, jumps and movements that are much more difficult than one may think.
“One person being slightly off can totally destroy what it’s supposed to look like,” McGrew said.
In Act III, Odile performs 32 turns — a task that looks effortless, but involves one of the most challenging ballet moves.
In addition to talking about the dance techniques, McGrew talked about dancewear.
The tutus are typically hand sewn and have many layers of tulle that are stacked to make the well-known circular skirt stay rigid. Pointe shoes, though loud before being broken in, are not made of wood. The box — the tip of the shoe — is made of densely packed layers of fabric, cardboard or paper hardened by glue. Because of how frequently dancers use them, the lifespan of a pointe shoe can last just one act or perhaps two days. The shoes are very specific to a dancer, and each dancer rips and scores them to perfectly fit the curve of her feet and arch.
The JCC’s Director of Arts and Talks Stephanie Risa Balkin, 46, has been fine-tuning the agency’s programming since July to blend the disciplines of dance, music, theater, authors and painting.
“My vision was to combine things, like an author talk with an orchestra or a dance program, and going to the theater,” she said. “We brought someone to do a lecture on women [artists] at the [Metropolitan Museum of Art] and then we went to the Met.”
Balkin said she’s heard positive feedback on the programs like McGrew’s ballet presentation, which will be complemented by a similar program focusing on modern dance scheduled in the fall.
The American Ballet Theatre in New York City will be performing Swan Lake June 24 to June 29. The best seats, McGrew suggested, are in the balcony. Visit metopera.org/season/2019-abt/swan-lake.