Lake Superior: Stanton Welch’s New Swan Lake

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Mireille Hassenboehler in Swan Lake
Photo by Drew Donovan

A forlorn maiden dressed in a white trumpet-sleeved gown floats in a delicate boat among the reeds on a still lake. She looks steeped in thought, flushed with the glow of newfound love, and unsure of her next move. An impending tragedy pervades the air, and she seems to be holding a secret. For some, this is just a languid scene in an old romantic painting. For Stanton Welch, the gifted and ambitious artistic director of Houston Ballet for more than two years now, the painting sparked the flame that launched his brilliant new production of Swan Lake.

Welch knew he had found the inspiration for his swan in John William Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite painting, The Lady of Shalott. “I’ve always felt the painting was linked to Swan Lake for me in some way,” says Welch. “It’s one of those iconic images that just stayed with me.” The Pre-Raphaelite movement revolted against the reign of Academic Neo-Classicism. They painted dreamy, but realistic, portraits of knights and maidens. Welch is glad they did.

Ballet dancers live and breathe Swan Lake on a daily basis; they hear the music in class and in rehearsal. “Everyone imagines how they might do their own Swan,” Welch observes. Welch took his time getting to know the company and waiting for the right confluence of events to mount his spectacular $1.6 million production, an unabashedly lavish affair that at once pays tribute to the best of ballet’s past as it pushes Houston’s premiere company headlong into a smart and sexy future. This is a Swan Lake like Houston has never, ever seen.

Welch, 36, has moved into year three of his leadership with grace and the artistic authority of an old pro. “This is an important time for the company,” Welch says, adding that recreating Swan Lake is a bold and important move for any ballet company. “It’s a bit like buying a house and making a lifetime commitment.” Houston Ballet’s previous production was one of group’s oldest productions and it was starting to show its age. Tutus and sets only last so long, and these were on their last legs. Although dance companies often share other productions, this generosity doesn’t extend to Swan Lake. A company’s Swan Lake is like its signature—they need their own.

To get the steeped-in-magic look so captured in Waterhouse’s Pre-Raphaelite painting, Welch went to the acclaimed New Zealand designer, Kristian Fredrikson. Welch had collaborated with Fredrikson four times so far in his career with stunning results. “Fredrikson loved the idea,” says Welch. Houston audiences were spellbound by his surreal production of Pecos Bill in Welch’s Tales of Texas.

This was Fredrikson’s fourth Swan Lake, and, as fate would have it, his last; he died suddenly in November 2005. “I could do Swan Lakes forever,” Fredrikson had said. The sets and designs were complete before his untimely death from Pneumonia and his assistant will be bringing the project to completion. “The piece will be a glorious tribute to Fredrikson,” says Thomas Boyd, Houston Ballet’s production director.

Fredrikson sets the lake scene by creating dazzling reflective surfaces that hint toward the heroine’s true habitat. In the designer’s watery world, the lake is everywhere—tree trunks coated with water reflections, rich cut-velvet gowns with shimmering underskirts and pearl-encrusted sequined bodices. The Queen don’s a gown crafted from Oscar de la Renta’s gold and burgundy velvet burnout fabric.

Even evil sports a new look. Rothbart, the part reptile, part dragon, mean guy wears a body-hugging leather suit that took nearly 600 hours to construct. His costume contains a dizzying array of leather textures from polished surfaces to a snake skin look. Think medieval batman with scales. He’s bound to make a splash when he enters with his entourage of four sinister but sleek black swans. Meanwhile, the white swans’ wispy tutus suggest a feathery presence without going overboard on the bird imagery. The simplicity stops there; luminous cut-velvet gowns pearl-encrusted sequined bodices with shimmering underskirts bring the party scenes to life.

Welch, known for his gorgeous, cutting-edge contemporary ballets, is updating the story for modern audiences. “I’m playing with the scenario,” says Welch. “I intend to give the ballet a contemporary slant, with complex dramas and a 21st century feel and pace.”

Good and evil are not so black and white in Welch’s world. The characters are complex, with more three-dimensional personalities. He’s streamlining the piece from four to three acts, packing the drama into the pivotal second act. And Stanton’s Swan strays off the usual path in the first act: Prince Siegfried first meets Odette as a maiden and not a bewitched swan. Welch reveres the usual order which means Odette is a swan by day and a woman by night, which opens up the eveningwear options. And, of course, she is wearing a fabulous white gown that resembles the wistful woman in the painting.

In the newly imagined opening scene It seems that Siegfried’s mother, eager to marry off her son, throws a ball so he can meet all the contenders at once. Fredrikson designed an opulent golden ballroom with two gigantic golden angels guarding center staircase, and there’s a glowing mosaic background. Siegfried expects Odette, his lovely new maiden to show up, Instead Odile, the evil black swan, masquerades as Odette. And, yes, she’s dressed to kill in a glimmering black sequined gown. Siegfried falls for the sexy bad girl thinking she’s Odette and confesses his love to the wrong woman. The right woman, Odette, shows up and things go downhill from there.

Welch highlights the moral dilemma by making Siegfried’s choice to pursue for the more sexually avert Odile the centerpiece of the drama. In traditional productions Odette (the white swan) and Odile (the evil black swan) never appear on stage together because they are danced by the same ballerina. In Welch’s production Odette and Odile are still danced by the same woman, but, due to the miracle of stage technology, will appear on stage together. “Through some stage trickery I bring Odette into the room to face her betrayer,” says Welch.

Although Welch is making some substantial changes to the classic choreography, some elements remain untouched. Welch is leaving Odile’s famous 32 whip-fast turns known as Fouettes, alone. “The girls expect them and want them,” says Welch. “It’s part of being a dancer to tackle those difficult moments.” The familiar and well-loved White Swan Pas de Deux will remain untouched. “It’s a masterpiece,” says Welch.

Welch will be giving the men more strenuous dancing to do. When Swan Lake first premiered in 1877, men were mostly ornamental, standing around looking good. Welch’s current crop of uber-technical men show off athletic bravura at every chance. “I’m upping the ante on their stress level,” says Welch.

At the end of the day, this new Swan Lake will pay homage to the original, by all accounts and enduring classic. “It’s a very modern love story,” Welch says. “The trap of the going for the more glamorous one, everybody lives that experience.”

Houston Ballet presents Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake Feb. 23-March 5 at Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave., 713.227.ARTS, http://www.houstonballet.org/.

Reprinted from Houston.

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