Artistic director Stanton Welch tends to see things in black and white – or at least he did in the version of this classic ballet he set on the Wortham Center last night to close the 2008-2009 season. At least he saw things, quite in keeping with the story, in terms of stark contrasts: yes, black and white (as in the color of swans), but also day and night, life and death, good and evil. Storytelling is not always easy, especially for modern, low-attention-span audiences, when it’s done in a long series of dances. But over the course of two acts and three hours, Welch made a believer of many that it can be done, even in the age of Twitter, with a whole lot more than 140 characters per tweat.
To picture Welch’s take on this ballet to Tchaikovky’s lush melodies, first performed at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1877 but given its familiar look by Petipa and Ivanov at the Maryinski in St. Petersburg almost two decades later, picture this: Sleeping-Beauty-Meets-Dracula-With-Feathers. Or more specifically, evil prince dressed in black keeps maidens captive by making them turn into swans. Love happens to one swan and one human, then death happens, breaking the spell and setting all the maidens free.
On opening night last night, Sara Webb and Connor Walsh showed just how much they’ve grown as performers since this new Houston Ballet production debuted in 2006. Webb made the perfect woman-or-swan, depending on the place in the story, and Walsh brought his substantial acting gifts to the fore while portraying one of ballet’s most heroic yet doomed heroes. It’s a true gift when Walsh is having a “conversation” with someone in dance, and you always know what he’s saying. Nicholas Leschke made a brooding, strutting Dracula – I mean, Rothbart – and the corps de ballet performed wonderfully throughout the entire, rather long evening.
During the eight-performance run of Swan Lake, the role of good/evil Odette/Odile is also being danced by Houston Ballet principals Amy Fote, Mireille Hassenboehler and Melody Herrera, giving her first performance in the role. Other Prince Siegfrieds include Simon Ball with Fote, Ian Casady with Herrera, and Linnar Looris, making his Houston debut in the role with Hassenboehler. All are sure to be luminous on the large Wortham stage amid spectacular pre-Raphaelite sets and costumes by the late New Zealand designer Kristian Fredrickson, this Swan Lake being his final project before passing away in late 2005. – John DeMers
Photo by Amitava Sarkar: Sara Webb and the corps de ballet