Take one young maiden, an evil knight, a relationship-resistant prince, and the supernatural transformations of unfortunate females into some stunning swans, and well, what more could you ask for from Houston Ballet’s pitch-perfect production of Swan Lake?
Let’s start with the gorgeous costumes—which dovetail perfectly with the scenery—both by the superlative Kristian Fredrikson. Some of the costumes are traditional for this ballet, and they are stunning. The white and black swans have the tutus you're expecting, and they are gorgeous whether donned by soloists or the full ensemble. Just beautiful.
But equally impressive are the Viking-esque dark costumes, (and dare I say scary?) of the evil knight Rothbart (Christopher Coomer) and his entourage, with capes that enable him to do his nefarious deeds way before Harvey Weinstein even thought of it. Truly, you will be struck by how timely this ballet is when you see how Rothbart treats women.
But back to the visuals, where I was floored by the lavish costumes of the court and the scenery ranging from dark forests to royal ballrooms. Each foreign princess has stunning attire, and every detail, from swan headdress to hunter’s wear, makes for an amazing and memorable spectacle. I wasn't sure how things would look in Jones Hall as opposed to the Wortham Center, which is still being patched up after Hurricane Harvey, but I thought everything looked splendid. The set sets the emotional stage for each scene—whether it be a gauzy haze over a fraught night, or the bright lights of a royal ball.
This show runs three hours with two intermissions, and Stanton Welch’s choreography makes it well worth it. Derived from the work of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the movement demands much of these dancers, pushing them in a way that many ballets do not. Yuriko Kajiya’s interpretation of the fragile Odette is delicate and she makes the demands of the role seem effortless. She's a pleasure to watch, and I had forgotten the incredible stamina required for this role. Whether playing Odette or Odile, she is convincing and her emotional range is formidable.
Chun Wai Chan as Prince Siegfried is equally convincing, and they have a wonderful chemistry, which is a moving contrast to the threatening presence of Rothbart. Other standouts from the fantastic company are Jacquelyn Long and Bridget Kuhns, who not only play princesses after Prince Siegfried’s heart, but also Duet Swans, and they are impeccable in both form and function for the roles.
It goes without saying that Swan Lake is very dark—not only in terms of some of the settings, but in the high stakes of emotions for the characters. That sophistication and melodrama kept even my nearly 17-year-old son transfixed. That is the power of great art—it reaches across the aisle, charms even the most resistant, just as Odette charms commitment-phobe Siegfried with her grace and vulnerability. When she is captured so violently by Rothbart, insuring her transformation into one of his Stepford Swans, I wanted to die, even though I knew it was inevitable. That is how high drama hits you—right in the gut, and this production goes all out.
But this is Tchaikovsky we're talking about, and the lush score conjures up longing and passion and pathos—so even if you are not a ballet fan, the music is the thing, and it is exquisite. Whether embodying the joy of the hunt or the tragedy of suicide, the breadth and depth of the music will stick with you, even long after all the swans have flown away. The Houston Ballet Orchestra (under the direction of Ermanno Florio) soared, and their performance alone is worth the price of the ticket.
I know: Maybe you saw that horrible Natalie Portman movie Black Swan, and you were traumatized by how Tchaikovsky was appropriated for a sick tale of ballet rivalry, obsession, and mental illness. But so what? You're stronger than that. Let the grace and beauty of the Houston Ballet wash right over you. But you better hurry—the swans only swim until July 1.
Thru July 1. Tickets from $25. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. 713-227-2787. More info and tickets at houstonballet.org.