Swan Lake sparks emotional connection

This past weekend the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra, put on the classical ballet favorite Swan Lake, staged by artistic director Terrence S. Orr.

The production was a visual splendor of white tulle that would make any aspiring dancer, elementary-aged and beyond, gasp with envy. The ballet immersed the audience in the fairytale world with rich orchestral accompaniment, magical set pieces, and even a few tastefully dramatic lightning flashes for effect. The stage was transformed from palace courtyard to dreamlike forest, juxtaposing the world of people with the wonders of nature. The dancers brought not only precision and poise, but an emotional energy that transformed the ballet from a showcase of remarkable skill into an emotional performance.

One of the few ballets to have entered popular culture and knowledge, Swan Lake encapsulates everything that one could want from a tragic love story. A discontent Prince Siegfried falls in love with beautiful maiden Odette, only to discover that she has been cursed by an evil sorcerer to transform into a swan in daylight. Only the prince’s true love and betrothal to her can remove the curse. Prince Siegfried returns home but is desperate to see his lover.

Meanwhile, the evil sorcerer devises a plan to make sure Odette remains in his power. The clever villain deceives Prince Siegfried into thinking that his own daughter, Odile, is the prince’s love, leading to inevitable emotional turmoil for the lovers who jump off a cliff, one and then the other, only to finally be together in heaven. Within this simple story is a number of interpretations and reflections, with themes of forbidden love, entrapment, and psychosis.

Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa in the latter half of the 19th century, the ballet’s most iconic scenes are those with the identical white swans in perfect harmony — symbols of pure naturalistic beauty. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre made these moments highlights. The dancers felt unified as they worked to create visual illusions and compositions, moving as one body to pull the audience from their own lives into the magic of the ballet.

The role of Odette was danced to perfection by the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s principal dancer, Julia Erickson, during the Thursday opening. The ability of the ballerina to express such complex emotions within the limits of the choreography requires tremendous physical and mental capacity, as well as the careful control of every part of the body, to communicate the psychological journey.

The lead role of Odette must also play the deceitful sorcerer’s daughter Odile, thus requiring a dancer able to express the personality of two characters within the same ballet. Erickson embodied both the ethereal character of Odette and the seductive personality of Odile with expressive yet economic movements.

Though the dancing took center stage, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra’s interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s score was equally masterful. Between the music and dancing, the performance was fully immersive.

Though Swan Lake is certainly nothing new, it speaks to complex human struggles that are consistently relevant across time and culture. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s performance of the classic is a reminder that perhaps the reason such works of art have withstood the test of time is because they speak to a deep human desire for magic, love, and an escape from reality.