All Classical Radio James Depreist

Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre’s ‘Swan Lake’ delivers depth and distinction

The timeless Tchaikovsky tale of Odette, Odile, and Siegfried springs to life under the direction of Christopher Stowell, complemented by the magical stage sets of Filipo Sanjust and the costumes of Sandra Woodall with Mark Zappone.


Christopher Stowell's Swan Lake, Oct. 6-14, 2023 at the Keller Auditorium. Photo by Yi Yin.
Carly Wheaton and Brian Simcoe in Christopher Stowell’s Swan Lake, Oct. 6-14, 2023 at the Keller Auditorium. Photo by Yi Yin.

Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its 34th season with Christopher Stowell’s adaptation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on Friday, October 6 at Portland’s Keller Auditorium. This OBT production, which originally premiered in 2006, was presented this year under newly appointed artistic director Dani Rowe. The ballet, staged by Stowell, was inspired by the original 1895 work of French-Russian choreographer Marius Petipa and Russian choreographer Lev Ivanov. The production included the spellbinding set design by Filipo Sanjust and equally exquisite costumes by Sandra Woodall with Mark Zappone.

Swan Lake is considered one of the great ballets, and rightfully so. The 19th-century classical romantic tragedy has long been performed by top-tier companies and ballerinas across the globe. The dance tells a traditional story of a dashing young prince, Prince Sigfried, who falls instantly and madly in love with a beautiful queen who has been turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. After a meeting of enamourment, trickery at the betrothal ball, and fighting to save his Swan Queen, Siegfried is left weeping alone at the lake as his true love, Odette, dies. In Stowell’s version, unlike some others, Siegfried does not achieve the ‘relief’ of death alongside his queen and must instead remain on Earth to grieve her until his final days.

On Saturday, October 14, I attended the matinee performance of Swan Lake featuring soloist Carly Wheaton as the dual role of Odette/Odile and principal dancer Brian Simcoe at Prince Sigfried. The pair were joined by Isaac Lee as Baron Von Rothbart and Leigh Goldberger as The Queen Mother. As the performance began, I was struck by the beauty of the costumes, which, when paired with the intricacy of the stage, transported the viewer to an idyllic realm of fairy tales and folklore. The castle set, which marked the grand presentation of “The Prince’s Birthday” in Act I, stood about 20 feet tall on either side of the stage. Designed by Michael Mazzola, the castle was illuminated with an elegant glow of light that mimicked the rise and setting of the sun.

As the movement in Act I commenced, the dancers presented a subtle length in their bodies while their feet tried to keep up with Tchaikovsky’s quick musicality, conducted that afternoon by the captivating Enrique Carreón-Robledo. Carried by the iconic musical signature, the dancers seemed to float through a dream, eyes wandering across the horizon. As The Queen Mother, Goldberger scurried down the stairs and across the stage with grace and lit up the birthday scene with her expressive épaulement and regal demeanor. After a giddy display of celebration, with young partygoers teasing Wolfgang, the prince’s tutor, the act finished with Sigfried running off to hunt with his new bow.

This performance of Swan Lake demonstrated that it is arguably Oregon Ballet Theatre’s most successful production. Brian Simcoe, who danced comfortably in his role, is subdued and pleasant to watch. He does not energize through the choreography by exploding with force, but rather holds his composure, and therefore his stamina, throughout the saga. While Simcoe expresses the youth of a naive and romantic Sigfried from the stage, he is one of the company’s longest-remaining performers, having joined OBT as an apprentice in 2004 before eventually graduating to principal in 2013.

Christopher Stowell's Swan Lake, Oct. 6-14, 2023 at the Keller Auditorium. Photo by Yi Yin.
Christopher Stowell’s Swan Lake, Oct. 6-14, 2023 at the Keller Auditorium. Photo by Yi Yin.

In Act II, Simcoe and Carly Wheaton make the perfect pairing. As the light dappled through the trees of the exquisite forest set, illuminated by a moon above a black diamond lake, Wheaton emerged. She is dainty and bird-like with an intensity that makes her an ideal choice for the ingénue of the work. Her control and stature offer an excellent complement to Simcoe’s softness, and her character’s reluctance to leave him eloquently expressed through both her features and gestures upon their goodbyes. What she forgoes in extension, she makes up for with near-perfect turns, an ability for sharp quickness, fluid strength in her arms, and textbook arabesques and attitudes — shapes that mark the style of an ideal Odette. 

One of Swan Lake’s most iconic moments came during Act II: the appearance of the Pas de Quatre, also known as “The Four Swans”. Performed by Asia Bui, Hannah Davis, Juliette Ochoa, and Mathilde Lambert, the dancers delivered a solid rendition of the upbeat petite allegro, and, despite the low energy and a few moments of mismatched unison, achieved the general precision and effect expected from the piece.


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After the third intermission came ACT III, “The Betrothal Ball”, in which over 50 dancers displayed their technical skills and artistry as Gnomes, Courtiers, Princesses, Diplomats, and more. Here, the prince hosts a grand occasion in which he must choose a bride. When Baron Von Rothbart arrives, he brings with him Odile, the swan meant to trick Sigfried’s gaze away from his Swan Queen, Odette. Complete with a huge fireplace and fabric-adorned throne, the scene radiated sophistication. The “Czardas” dance was executed beautifully by Zuzu Metzler, Ben Youngstone, and supporting performers — all clad in red boots that shone under white pants and dresses. After a short energy lull in the first half of the show, the company confidently rescued their stride with high jumps, meaningful kicks, and renewed alertness. Simcoe’s turns were strong and he sailed with balance. Wheaton, as the dark and deceptive Odile, wowed with biting strength, accented flicks of the wrist, and pointed security in both her fouettés and petit allegro.

Wheaton embodied the choreography, rather than reciting it or running to catch up to it — which made all the difference in her success as the female lead of Swan Lake. Her dancing was grounded without looking sluggish and light without becoming waif-like as in other famous ballets like Les Sylphides. After the performance, she was awarded the Steuben glass swan and a bouquet of red roses by Carol Shults, Portland ballet teacher, dance historian, and educator. This glass swan was originally given to ballerina and choreographer Jacqueline Martin Schumacher by OBT’s first artistic director James Canfield in 1997.

After the final performance, Carol Shults presented Carly Wheaton with the Steuben glass swan, originally given to ballerina and choreographer Jacqueline Martin Schumacher after her appearance in "Swan Lake". (l-r) Brian Simcoe, Carol Shults, and Carly Wheaton. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.
After the final performance, Carol Shults presented Carly Wheaton with the Steuben glass swan, originally given to ballerina and choreographer Jacqueline Martin Schumacher after her appearance in “Swan Lake”. (l-r) Brian Simcoe, Carol Shults, and Carly Wheaton. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.


Schumacher, who danced the Swan Queen in the first full-length production of Swan Lake in America, was a Portland ballet teacher for forty years. She choreographed over 20 shows at the Portland Civic Theatre during the 1950s and 1960s and founded Portland Ballet Company in the 1970s, which led to the establishment of Oregon Ballet Theatre. Beloved by her students, Schumacher was considered a “woman of elegance and precision; a teacher of deep knowledge and love of ballet” by former Reed College professor of dance Pat Wong, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia entry written by Carol Shults. Schumacher would present first-time performers of the Odette/Odile role with a single rose, which included OBT’s Yuka Iino in 2006, according to dance writer and biographer Martha Ullman West. Schumacher passed away in September 2019 and this awarding of the glass swan honors not only Wheaton, but also Schumacher’s legacy.

The drama, wonder, and excitement of Swan Lake shone in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production. In Act IV, “Return to the Lake”, Wheaton wallowed in the tragedy of Tchaikovsky’s famous score, often referred to by viewers as the “Dying Swan” section of the performance, as she expanded and contracted her ‘wings’; overextending her shoulders to alternate between shielding her face and peering toward the sky. She bourréed further from Prince Sigfried, toward the pull of Odette’s death (or in Stowell’s case, a life of enduring an unending curse), until she was out of sight — leaving the prince to sink to his knee in anguish. As the performance drew to a melancholy close, the audience came to their feet in appreciation for the classic tale, the dancers’ artistry, and all that surrounded it.


Next up for the company is George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, the family-friendly Christmas holiday classic running December 8-24, followed by Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan on February 17-25, 2024, both at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St, Portland.


All Classical Radio James Depreist

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Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.


4 Responses

  1. Yeah…we certainly needed another review of a poor production of a classical ballet that’s been done to death…can’t wait for your raving Nutcracker review!!!

    1. I’m sorry you feel that way, Dave. Perhaps you may take an interest in some of my other reviews. They are all listed under my byline if you’d like to take a look.

  2. Dear Amy, I want to thank you for your mention here of the little ceremony after Carly Wheaton’s last Swan Lake performance. It seemed appropriate to me to recognize her exquisite dancing in the ballet and her consequent promotion to principal dancer status by OBT’s director Dani Rowe. To link it to the history of OBT via Jacqueline Schumacher just made sense and the lovely little glass swan was a tangible link to that history. Another link in the chain was brought out that day by Carly’s partner, Brian Simcoe, whose first ballet teacher in Southern Oregon was a student of Mrs Schumacher. History matters!

    As a long-time dance educator I have been aware for years, due to questions from students and audience, of a common misconception around the ballet Swan Lake and its magnificent score by Tchaikovsky. Many people assume wrongly that another ballet they have heard of or seen, The Dying Swan, is from Swan Lake. I have known people who waited patiently through the ballet for the Dying Swan to occur!
    This, of course, never happens, because The Dying Swan or just The Swan, is a piece of music by Camille Saint-Saens, from his composition The Carnival of the Animals. Michael Fokine, the choreographer, made a very touching solo dance in the early 1900s for the ballerina Anna Pavlova, which has lasted through the ages and is still performed occasionally today. (There is a video of the great dancer, Li’l Buck performing his own very individual dance as Yo Yo Ma plays the cello. Highly recommended)

    Christopher Stowell’s fourth act is, to me, a definitive version for our time. He uses Tchaikovsky’s heartbreaking theme to tell us that Odette does NOT die. Instead she must endure the ghastly spell of the evil sorcerer for the rest of her days. Siegfried is condemned to suffer the consequences of his betrayal.(In many other versions of the ballet though, she and the prince both leap into the lake and we are to believe them together in the hereafter!) I offer these facts for clarification.

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