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.
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.
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.
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.