Arts / Performing Arts

Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake Packs a Powerful Punch, Putting a Stanton Welch Twist on the Beloved Classic

A Performing Arts Devotee's First Take Review

BY // 06.13.23

Houston Ballet opened its first of eight performances of Swan Lake (which runs through this Sunday, June 18) to a glittering full house. When the curtain came down, the audience was on its feet with bravos and thunderous applause of appreciation. Truly one is in awe at seeing once more the most storied of classical ballets set to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece score — this time with choreography by artistic director Stanton Welch in a dazzling display of dance, musicianship, and design.

Although Swan Lake is sometimes described as a museum piece, it’s surprising how many interpretations of the original story have been presented since its St. Petersburg debut in 1895 with choreography by the famed Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

Houston Ballet Principal Chase O’Connell as Prince Siegfried and Corps de Ballet dancer Danbi Kim with Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet Principal Chase O’Connell as Prince Siegfried and Corps de Ballet dancer Danbi Kim with Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake. (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)

Welch’s Swan Lake is true to the grandeur of 19th-century Russian ballet, retaining the demanding level of choreography that makes it one of the paramount tests for the classical ballerina and the corps de ballet. However, he has reimagined the plot line, to the extent it may be helpful to know the story in advance of going.

“We can tell a story that doesn’t have to be the story people know coming in,” Welch told Arts and Culture Texas.

In the plot you may be familiar with, Prince Siegfried goes to a nearby lake to escape his mother’s attempt to introduce him to a future wife. There, he meets the beautiful white swan Odette for the first time, and falls desperately in love with her. Their moving pas de deux is a pledge of their love.

In reality, Odette is a princess turned into a swan by the evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart, who is usually costumed as an owl-like creature. Rothbart knows that if Odette and Siegfried find true love, the curse he put on her will be broken. They will be free, and he will die. To quash that possibility, Rothbart transforms his daughter into Odile, the black swan, with a scheme for her to beguile Siegfried and win his love.

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Odile succeeds, but when Siegfried spies Odette again, he realizes he’s been fooled and begs her for forgiveness. As their hearts reunite, Rothbart appears and summons her. Rather than go with him, Odette throws herself into the lake, and Siegfried follows. Their love is sealed, even in death, and the spell is broken.

So indeed, through the decades, audiences have seen Prince Siegfried fall in love with a beguiling bird and thought nothing of it. After all, we have often given ourselves over to the world of myth and folk tales.

However, to give context to the story and perhaps for it to “make more sense,” Welch introduces Odette not as a bird, but a human maiden. In a long opening pantomime — perhaps
a bit too long if you’re excited to see the dancing begin — Odette arrives at the lake alone in a row boat. The evil knight Baron de Rothbart emerges from the forest and captures her, turning her into a white swan. Under his curse, she is to remain a swan by day and a maiden at night.

In Welch’s version, since Siegfried meets Odette for the first time in human form, it’s with a maiden that Siegfried dances the first pas de deux — he falling in love with her, she reciprocating and falling backward into his arms. That means when Siegfried next encounters Odette transformed into a swan, their meeting is already is tinged with sadness and a sense of foreboding doom.

If you have seen other versions of this ballet, you may remember it as a love story that in many, but not all, versions ends tragically. Yet Tchaikovsky’s lush score lingers with a dream-like memory of fluttering white tutus and romance that somehow overcomes the sadness.

Houston Ballet Principals Beckanne Sisk as Odette and Chase O’Connell as Prince Siegfried in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)
Houston Ballet Principals Beckanne Sisk as Odette and Chase O’Connell as Prince Siegfried in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy Houston Ballet)

Houston Ballet’s performances of Swan Lake feature rotating casts, presented with four different principals in the role of Odette/Odile and four different Prince Siegfrieds. On opening night, it was Beckanne Sisk as Odette/Odile and Chase O’Connell as Siegfried. Because each principal dancer brings their life experience and very soul to important roles such as these, their capacity to convey nuance and depth — in addition to their level of technique — will largely determine how a spectator experiences the work.

I can’t be sure, then, whether it was Welch’s choreography or Sisk’s interpretation of Odette that led me to feel a cloud of melancholy bordering on depression that darkened the ballet’s atmosphere. From her first pas de deux as a swan with Siegfried, rather than a quintessentially graceful Odette with fluttering bird-like shyness, my overwhelming impression was one of Sisk’s humiliation at Siegfried finding her deformed into a bird. I was reminded of the shame felt by the cursed candelabra and teapot in Beauty and the Beast.

With the removal of a moment of innocent first desire, as in a Garden of Eden before the serpent appears, Siegfried’s love story with the beautiful white swan begins with its impossibility. Gone is a lofty vision of love that might “conquer all” to bring a happy ending.

Instead, the scene is already set for suffering and inevitable tragedy.

Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)
Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake (Photo by Amitava Sarkar. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)

Swan Lake’s Costume Power

Adding to the dark atmosphere are costumes and sets by Kristian Fredrikson, who borrows from the mood and palette of pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse. The ballet’s opening scene at the lake is inspired by Waterhouse’s painting The Lady of Shalott, 1888, based on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1832 poem of the same name. Set in Arthurian times, the poem depicts the mythological tale of a female figure who, like Odette, gives her life for love and a moment of freedom, and thereby breaks a curse.

That the Pre-Raphaelites were also inspired by the Ottoman Empire likely explains Fredrikson’s Byzantinesque ballroom in Act II, ominously lit by designer Lisa J. Pinkham, where the Queen is entertaining. The impressive set has been widely praised since its inception.

I feel the odd person out finding it jarringly garish and, more importantly, clashing with the simply lovely music Tchaikovsky uses to present the dances of four foreign princesses hoping to win the prince. The hopelessness of their efforts may have been the point, although I was wishing there were another way to make it.

Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake
Houston Ballet principals Beckanne Sisk as Odile and Chase O’Connell as Prince Siegfried in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake (Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox. Courtesy of Houston Ballet)

The castle walls of harsh orange and red form the backdrop for Fredrikson’s costumes of less-than-winsome hues in olive green, rust, claret, and muted blues and purple. Most dramatically, the ballroom becomes the setting for Odile to appear, brought by Rothbart. She emerges in a black tutu layered with eye-catching shiny silver to captivate the prince in a pas de deux choreographed for her to tempt and seduce.

Back at the lake for Act III and the close, we find ourselves in a changed forest of barren trees, among which is the image of an enormous dead dragon. It takes a moment to associate the dragon with Arthurian legend and not wonder whether we’ve been transported 66 million years prior, to the dinosaur age. If you haven’t seen the ballet yet and don’t know how Fredrikson’s set figures into it, I won’t spoil the ending.

Gifted principals, a company of talented dancers and brilliant musicians are at the heart of Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake.

Chase O’Connell gave a powerful and convincing performance as handsome Prince Siegfried. His acting is excellent, his jumps and mid-air rotations exciting and his partnering flawless.

Beckanne Sisk is a portrait of superb extension and balletic athleticism, moving skillfully with determination from position to position, fulfilling the demanding choreography. I was wishing, though, for more delicacy and fluidity in her Odette — arms that rippled more, a wrist that curved more — and more of a contrast between her Odette and Odile.

Appearing in Acts I and II as the spritely foreign princesses vying for the attention of Prince Siegfried, Jacquelyn Long (Spain), Tyler Donatelli (Naples), Alyssa Springer (Russia), and Aoi Fujiwara (Hungary) provided delightful moments of youthful gaiety and marvelous dancing in stunning national costumes to match the spirit.

Jaci Doty, Emma Forrester, Aoi Fujiwara, and Chae Eun Yang did not disappoint in the ballet’s famed pas de quatre.

It would be hard to be too complimentary of the precision and synchronicity of the corps de ballet. They were everything one could hope for, each an artist in her own right.

Music director and principal conductor Ermanno Florio did a magnificent job leading the orchestra through some of the most beautiful and beloved music ever written. Standing out were Barrett Sills’ sonorous cello, Lisa Nickl’s flute, Joan Eidman’s harp, Elizabeth Priestly Siffert’s oboe, and Denise Tarrant’s violin. And it was fun to hear the glockenspiel, tambourine, and castanets in the national dances. The very best performances come when dancers breathe the music into their being and, in a momentary exhale, transform sound into an artistic vision. The Houston Ballet Orchestra gives them outstanding support to do that.

What a glorious night it was, this Swan Lake. May it live for another 100 years, finding the artists, musicians, dancers, and visionaries like Stanton Welch to bring it to succeeding generations.

Houston Ballet’s performances of Swan Lake run through this Sunday, June 18. Tickets start at $75. For more information click here

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