Ballet Tackles a Classic
March 9, 2017
When planning for their current season, Fort Wayne Ballet wanted to present something very special to honor its 60-year history in our community. Each season there are a couple of absolutes about their performance schedule.
In the fall the ballet demonstrates the eclectic talents of their company dancers, featuring not only classical ballet but other dance forms as well. And of course in December, their annual contribution to our holiday traditions, The Nutcracker, is set in stone before any other performances are considered. It was with their spring production, in which they feature story ballets, that they were able to do something very special to commemorate their anniversary season. For the first time, Swan Lake will be performed in its entirety in Fort Wayne.
The history of Swan Lake is an interesting one, especially given how popular it has become over the years.
"When it first debuted it was not very successful," says Karen Gibbons-Brown, executive and artistic director for Fort Wayne Ballet. "But when Tchaikovsky passed away, they included Act II of Swan Lake at his funeral, and it had been re-choreographed. People decided that it wasn't so bad after all, and it has eventually become iconic."
Much of its popularity can be attributed to the work of Marius Petipa, the Russian dancer and choreographer who provides the choreography which has established it as one of the premier ballets in the world.
"Petipa traveled the world and learned folk dances from all of the countries he visited," says Gibbons-Brown. "That can be seen very clearly in the character dancing in Swan Lake. Petipa was very much interested in pieces that were 'of the earth' and gave the ballet its second life."
While she's very excited to finally bring this famous ballet to a Fort Wayne stage, there are some significant challenges. Costumes for the ballet, which are not exactly inexpensive, are always a consideration. With shows which have been performed multiple times over the years - classics like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty - the ballet has been able to go into the vault and pull out previously worn pieces. For The Nutcracker, casting decisions are often made with available costume sizes in mind. There was no vault from which to borrow for Swan Lake.
"Everything has had to be created since we have never produced this ballet before. Fortunately, we have two talented people, Nan Possemato and Blaise Moore, who are doing a wonderful job and creating these costumes for us."
There are some new staging issues which are unique to Swan Lake, and Gibbons-Brown says she has had to rely on her production team to help navigate those technological issues.
"There's a scene where there is just a heap of smoke, and I've had to explain this to the production crew without actually having seen how it's done. I've always been behind the stage when this is going on, so I don't know how to describe what's going on from the crew's perspective. So I'm very grateful that they've been able to find a way to accomplish these special effects. I can tell you that there is a crumbling castle among the scenery."
There is more to her plan for Swan Lake than just the three performances with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. There will also be opportunities to celebrate the ballet's history with an adult-themed Black Swan Ball following Friday evening's performance, as well as a White Swan Tea aimed at the younger attendees following the Saturday matinee. Both of those are ticketed events. She also promises a decorated Russian carnival setting as the audiences enter the Arts United Center, before they take their seats. With activities for children and an atmosphere to set the mood for Swan Lake, there will be an especially festive atmosphere for the ballet's main stage finale.
There will be a few more performances for Fort Wayne Ballet before they drop the curtain on their 2016-17 season. The ballet's Youth Theatre will perform The Lorax in honor of Dr. Seuss at their last Family Series performance of the year on April 22, and they will once again blend their annual Fort Wayne Ballet, Too performance (an outdoor free performance) with their final production in the Auer Center ArtsLab (an indoor ticketed event) in May. But while those are far more intimate performances, Swan Lake promises to be the more lavish production which classical dance fans have come to love.
"It is a big ballet with a tremendous number of dancers," says Gibbons-Brown. "There are 50 people performing in this, and it includes our professional dancers, our trainees, our apprentices, along with our upper-level performing students in the Auer Academy. We're happy to be providing our community with the opportunity to see Swan Lake, but we're also happy to provide our dancers with the opportunity to add to their repertoire. Dancers are always training, and this is a wonderful piece to be able to offer to our dancers. There are some very special movements involved in this choreography, and just the way the arms move is very precise. We have arm rehearsals for this because it's tricky."
Gibbons-Brown says that there have been enough variations on Tchaikovsky's score that the Philharmonic has worked carefully to create the exact score that Fort Wayne Ballet is using. Being able to experience classical ballet with a professional company and live performance from an orchestra is an especially gratifying part of the spring ballet, one which Gibbons-Brown is enthusiastic about sharing with Fort Wayne. She says that despite - or perhaps because of - the inherent challenges of presenting such a beloved ballet has been worth it and has made this anniversary season that much more special.
"It's thrilling to be doing this for our community and to have been part of the community in such a viable way for all these years. When we started planning our 60th season, we started researching to see what businesses and organizations stood alongside of us 60 years ago, and there aren't many. It's just very special to have had that kind of presence in this area for so long."
- By Michele DeVinney