The Swan Queen Diaries: Three dancers on making their debut in ballet's iconic dual role
By Jv Ramos
Principal dancer Katherine Barkman and soloists Abigail Oliveiro and Joan Emery Sia have many things in common: The three ballerinas uphold the Vaganova training method, have garnered medals in the prestigious Asian Grand Prix, played the role of Juliet in Ballet Manila’s 20th performance season, and are currently prepping themselves for their first Odette-Odile performance in the full-length Swan Lake.
But the impression of them being like “peas in a pod” quickly vanishes once they are placed side by side to candidly speak of their ongoing Swan Lake journeys.
Katherine, who unlike the other two has never danced Odile or Odette, is carefully absorbing and enjoying every moment leading up to her debut of a new character. “To learn Swan Lake in its purest form is such a blessing,” she comments.
Abi, who’s always the early bird and a self-proclaimed lover of the duality expected from the lead ballerina in Swan Lake, cannot contain her joy and eagerness. “I don’t want to say I’m crazy, but sometimes, I think that I am,” she giddily expresses. “The switching from white to black for me is just fun!”
And finally, Joan, who happens to have the White Swan listed as her very first big role, is relatively quiet and noticeably anxious. “I’m actually not handling it [the pressure of the role] well right now,” the soloist confesses. “But, I think, when you’re thrown in water, you have no choice but to swim. So I’m coping the best way I can. I put all these years into ballet and I’m not going to throw it all away.”
“To begin with, a swan is very difficult to portray,” explains Abi when asked about the challenges they have to go through as Swan Queens. “The swan moves differently from the generic kind of bird. They twist their heads a lot and they create different kinds of shapes.”
“And here, you’d have to remember that we’re not just portraying a swan,” points out Katherine. We’re embodying what a swan symbolizes, which is beauty, purity and grace. We have to incorporate these qualities into the dance. And, since it’s still a classical ballet, there’s a technique to making the body look and move like a swan.”
“Yes, technically, the dance part is really hard – finding the nuances, the meaning to each step – those really are difficult,” echoes Joan. “But the hardest part for me is keeping myself together throughout the whole process.”
While Swan Lake is widely described as the most exacting of the classics, only those who are directly involved in a production of it could truly fathom its demanding nature. The ballet masterpiece is particularly hard on the individualstasked to dance the lead role, for not only do they have to be as polished and alluring as the corps de ballet surrounding them. They also have to pour so much time and effort in learning two opposing roles – iconic characters that they would have to pull out from their system in just a span of two hours.
What’s interesting here is dancers Katherine, Abi and Joan have varied approaches to the dual part. Just like in her previous performances, Katherine imposes a clean slate upon herself during intermission. “I’m not the same swan or the same Katherine. Whatever happened in Act 2 is done, and whatever’s going to happen in Act 3 is completely different. So it’s not so much about transforming, but doing something completely different.”
Joan, on the other hand, associates Odette and Odile with the earth’s elements. “The White Swan is water – very fluid and transparent; and the Black Swan is fire – seductive, strong, alluring and dangerous,” she spells out. “I’m actually still in the process of sorting out. But this is how I begin.”
Like a true Gemini, Abi sees Swan Lake as an opportunity to express the two sides of her personality. “The White Swan is very hesitant and as a person, I can be very hesitant… But there’s that side of me that’s teasing, playful and seductive. I am excited about the transformation because what the Black Swan stands for, which includes empowerment and strong femininity, isn’t something I feel or get to express very often.”
So which of the Swans do our subjects identify with? Katherine has a straightforward answer: “The White Swan. Because, for me, the Black Swan is just evil. She’s not even seductive. She enters that ball, trying to do one thing – to make Siegfried renounce his oath to Odette. It’s like she’s there to destroy lives. So, I relate more to Odette in the sense that she protects the other swans.”
She, however, is quick to add, “The only thing that’s different with me and Odette is I wouldn’t wait for Siegfried to rescue me. I’d find my own way to break the curse.”
Abi and Joan, who were once so convinced that they only identify with Odette, claim that a woman can find affinity with both the White Swan and Black Swan. “When I was just part of Swan Lake’s corps de ballet, all I could think of was: I want to play the White Swan and dance Acts 2 and 4. And, when I was cast as the White Swan, it really felt like a glove that fit,” starts Joan. “But as I grew up with the company, playing all these different roles, I realized that there’s this part of me that relates to the character of the Black Swan. She knows she’s capable and I like to prove to people that what they think about me is wrong.” [Joan shares that people don’t think of her as a convincing as Odile due to her meekness.]
“Back in 2014, I remember answering ‘White Swan’ in an interview. And, here we are now, just after a few years, and my answer’s completely different,” says Abi, who admits to constantly debating with herself if she’s really more of Odette or Odile. “That’s how personal Swan Lake is. The more you practice, the more you dance it, the more you experiment and explore, the more things you’ll find out about yourself.”
“My very first Swan Lake lead, which was for a recital in 2012, was a big confirmation for me,” reminisces Joan. “It confirmed my place in ballet and I felt that I really learned so much in that time span.”
Abi echoes her colleague’s sentiments and adds that the learning just doesn’t stop. “I remember not being able to execute all my ideas. The emotions I wanted to portray didn’t come out. This time, I could do what I wanted to before, but my ideas about the Black Swan have completely changed.”
Joan also feels that she wants to do more with the role, but she nevertheless recognizes the importance of “taking a step back, taking everything in, doing it again and seeing where it goes.”
While it’s Katherine's first time to go through the experience, she could already tell that the Russian fairy tale is transforming her as a dancer. “I remember when I first came here, Lisa told me while I was rehearsing for a princess role that it’s going to be a huge challenge for me to do Swan Lake. And Lisa’s very right!”
Noting that her Prince Siegfried is the multi-awarded American danseur Joseph Phillips, Katherine shares, “I’m making a choice every day if I want to be afraid because I don’t feel like a Swan Queen. Or am I just gonna take it and do my best and not be afraid? I know I’m not this [the ideal Swan Queen] yet, but by having the courage to pursue it, maybe I’ll become it.”
As the show dates come closer, the pressure these ballerinas are going through just keeps becoming more pronounced, but these Swan Queens are ready. Armed with their love for ballet and the physical training and emotional support they receive from their colleagues, Katherine, Abi and Joan know that they’d be able to carry on Ballet Manila’s tradition of delivering remarkable Swan Lake performances.