Winged ballets: Swan Lake

Winged ballets: Swan Lake

Birds are the focus of some of ballet’s best known pieces such as Swan Lake and Firebird, and continue to spur the creation of new ones. There’s just something about these winged creatures that apparently challenges choreographers to channel their unique movements and character through dance.

When Ballet Manila opened its 22nd performance season billed as "Flights of Fantasy" on August 26, a bird took centerstage once more. The famed mythical bird of Philippine lore became the subject of resident choreographer Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna, delivering a dazzling spectacle in the tradition of Ballet Manila’s blockbuster Tatlong Kuwento ni Lola Basyang and its equally successful sequel, Tatlo Pang Kuwento ni Lola Basyang.

To usher in the world premiere of Ibong Adarna and the return of the ballet classic Swan Lake in October, we look back – through this series – at the bird-inspired ballets that have taken flight and even soared at Ballet Manila.

Lisa Macuja dances in Swan Lake in 2011 as part of her Swan Song Series wherein she performed her last Odette/ Odile. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

When Ballet Manila first performed the classical warhorse that is Swan Lake, it had to “import” a Russian company to make a full cast. After all, as a touring company, BM only had a total of twelve dancers! And so it was that in 1996, it teamed up with thirty dancers of the Krasnoyarsk State Ballet to perform Swan Lake before Filipino audiences for a local tour.

Principal dancer Katherine Barkman and soloist Joan Emery Sia debut in the dual role of Odette and Odile in Ballet Manila’s 2017 production of the full-length Swan Lake. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

By 2003, as BM continued to grow in strength and numbers and with a school that was producing a pool of supporting dance talents, artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde thought it was time to mount Swan Lake with an all-Filipino cast. The endeavor was ambitious, difficult and one year in the making, but it happened!

People’s Artist of Russia Sergey Vikulov came to Manila to restage and choreograph some new sections of the 19th century Peter Tchaikovsky/ Lev Ivanov classic. Lisa’s own mentor, Tatiana Udalenkova of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, “relentlessly polished” the dancers over a two-month rehearsal period – as Lisa would recall in the 2003 Swan Lake souvenir program.

Swan Lake is an unforgettable love story and has been one of the world’s most favorite ballets in over a hundred years. It is the story of Odette, the White Swan Princess, who is enchanted by the sorcerer Von Rothbart. Turned into a swan, she can only go back to human form at night… and only true love is supposed to break the spell. Prince Siegfried is ready to swear his eternal love to Odette, but instead, is fooled by Rothbart into doing so to Odile, the Black Swan. In some versions, the ill-fated lovers die together; in others, they break the spell and live happily ever after.

Soloist Abigail Oliveiro performs as Odette, the vulnerable White Swan, in The Swan, The Fairy and The Princess in 2016. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

Originally meant to be performed by two different dancers, the dual role of Odette/ Odile has become the ultimate challenge for a classical ballerina who must portray two contrasting characters in one show. Odette possesses a lyrical temperament and sincere vulnerability. Odile exudes sultry cunning and seductive allure.

“Both roles call for spot-on technique, a steely left supporting leg, elevation, flexibility, and most importantly, strength,” Lisa enumerates. “Tchaikovsky’s score calls for impeccable musicality – the ability to sustain balances and peg those pirouettes. One has to have complete control over one’s body.”

Lisa also describes Swan Lake as the acid test of a company’s corps de ballet, with a bevy of 24 swans having to dance as one unit and displaying spectacular synchronized court dancing.

Jessica Pearl Dames, Jasmine Pia Dames, Tiffany Chiang-Janolo and Jessa Balote are featured in the well-known “Dance of the Cygnets” from Swan Lake. Photo by Ocs Alvarez

In 2011, Lisa bade farewell to the Odette/ Odile character as part of her Swan Song Series. By then, she had danced a total of 20 full-length performances where she tackled both parts, nine of which were danced overseas. As the White Swan, she had clocked 122 performances and as the Black Swan, 72.

Ballet Manila last staged the full-length Swan Lake in 2014, with Bavarian State Ballet principal dancers Katherina Markowskaja and Maxim Chashchegorov as guest artists.

And now, in 2017, the company is ready to perform this beloved classic yet again with three ballerinas making their debut as Odette/ Odile – principal dancer Katherine Barkman, and soloists Abigail Oliveiro and Joan Emery Sia.

“For as long as Ballet Manila thrives, it will embrace its classical roots and Swan Lake will always be part of our repertoire and our dancers will always be prepared to perform it in all its traditional glory,” Lisa promises.

In 2003, Lisa Macuja-Elizalde and Osias Barroso headlined Swan Lake featuring, for the first time, an all-Filipino cast. Souvenir program from the Ballet Manila Archives collection

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