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Originally published Sunday, January 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Dance

A flock of dancers moves as one in PNB's classic "Swan Lake"

The moon has risen near a quiet lake, and we see them: a flock of women in white, their tutus glowing softly. They move as one; their arms...

Seattle Times movie critic

The moon has risen near a quiet lake, and we see them: a flock of women in white, their tutus glowing softly. They move as one; their arms tremulously floating, their melancholy presence contributing to the almost ghostly mood. While they are subservient to the swan queen, Odette, they echo her movements and presence, thus amplifying them: A queen is nothing without her court.

Those swans, who'll alight at Pacific Northwest Ballet when "Swan Lake" begins its run Thursday, are part of a grand classical ballet tradition: the ballets-blanc, or white ballet. Dating back to the early 19th century, they feature an all-female, white-clad corps de ballet, usually representing some sort of otherworldly presence in a group dance, often behind a female leader. They both advance the plot and create an atmosphere that can be startlingly beautiful: these dancers, floating in their lines of white, seem not entirely human. Such an assignment is a rite of passage for a female corps de ballet dancer, who must learn to move as one with a group, and yet give a performance entirely her own. While the lead role of Odette/Odile, with its stunning pas de deux and technical bravura, gets much of the attention in any production of "Swan Lake," the swans deserve to emerge from the shadows.

The nuns started it

Dance critic Robert Greskovic attributes the first white ballet to the little-known "Ballet of the Nuns" in Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera "Robert le Diable": At its 1831 Paris Opera premiere, the legendary ballerina Marie Taglioni led a moonlit ensemble of ghostly nuns from their tombs in a cloister. Anna Kisselgoff, in The New York Times, notes that this was the beginning of a preoccupation with the supernatural that characterized much of the century's Romantic era of ballet. Later, white ballets would include the wood nymphs of "La Sylphide," the underworld shadows of "La Bayadère," the wilis (the ghosts of engaged girls jilted before their wedding nights) of "Giselle" and the swans, which were women transformed into birds by the sorcerer Von Rothbart.

The swans barely got off the ground on their first outing: "Swan Lake," with its tempestuous and ravishing Tchaikovsky score and choreography by Julius Reisinger, met with indifference on its 1877 premiere at Moscow's Bolshoi Theater, and the ballet soon disappeared from the repertory. But it would return with a vengeance in 1895, when the Russian ballet master Marius Petipa restaged it partly as a memorial to the composer, who had died in 1893.

Assisted by Lev Ivanov (to whom Greskovic credits the lakeside scenes with the swan maidens), Petipa created many of the elements balletomanes now associate with the ballet, particularly the distinctive dual role of Odette/Odile, the swan queen and the evil genie who impersonates her — i.e. the Black Swan.

The new ballet was a success, and "Swan Lake," now well over a century old, has become one of the world's most beloved ballets. Petipa/Ivanov's staging has been changed and adapted in numerous ways, but the swan maidens persevere (even when they're swan men, as in Matthew Bourne's innovative all-male "Swan Lake" in 1995). PNB's version, in the company's repertory since 1981, is choreographed by Kent Stowell but retains much of Petipa/Ivanov's work (researched and staged by Francia Russell), particularly in the lakeside Act II and the grand ballroom pas de deux in Act III.

Coming up

"Swan Lake," 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 1-3 and 8-10, 1 p.m. Feb. 3, 10 and 11, 7 p.m. Feb. 11, Pacific Northwest Ballet, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle, $18-$145 (206-441-2424 or www.pnb.org).

"Feel like a swan"

As a new crop of 24 swans enter their final week of rehearsal for PNB's "Swan Lake," a trio of veterans paused to consider their winged roles. Principal dancer Carla Körbes (who will make her debut as Odette/Odile) formerly danced in the corps of "Swan Lake" at New York City Ballet, while newly promoted soloists Chalnessa Eames and Lesley Rausch have previously performed PNB's version and will rejoin the corps for this production.

Eames, who first danced the ballet as a student with Royal Winnipeg Ballet, remembered an inspiring coach there. "We were all coached the same way," she said. "You couldn't just stand there with your arms in a certain position — you had to feel like a swan. So you had this image in your head that you were a bird. Not so much like the queen, but you felt like you had wings and were holding wings, not your arms."

Körbes, from her early training in Brazil, said her teachers forbade prospective swan maidens from learning any steps until they got the arms right. "The wings are not just the arms," she said, "they're the back. If you're going to move, you can't just flap." Rausch echoed a comment from Russell, from rehearsal that day: "She said, don't look like you're trying to flick something off your hands."

But there's more to being a swan maiden then just the arms: Without that perfect, ethereal unison, the white-ballet mood is broken. A swan whose arms go up too quickly, or too slowly, or who hops just a fraction of a second off the beat, pulls all eyes toward her. "You're in white tutus, pink tights, pink pointe shoes, the background is dark, the ground is dark, you see everything," said Rausch, emphasizing the importance of dancing as one.

"It's almost like this groupthink thing starts to happen," she said. "A lot of it is just really awareness of what's going on around you, of really making sure that you're not just doing whatever you feel like doing. It might feel good to throw your arm, but you can't."

For the corps, "Swan Lake" is a fiendishly difficult marathon. "You're on every night," said Körbes. As a swan, "you stop, and then stand forever. Then, all of a sudden, you have to hop, your legs are cramped. And then you stop again." And the swans tend to do double or triple duty, with fast costume changes: birthday guests in Act I, princesses in Act III.

And with lines of women dancing perilously close together, there's always the possibility of disaster. Körbes remembered her first NYCB "Swan Lake," as an apprentice, when an elaborate weaving sequence went terribly wrong and "all the senior corps were behind me, yelling 'What are you doing?' " Rausch remembered, from the last PNB production, a swan who ran too close to the principal dancer and knocked her off pointe. "It's terrifying when it happens, even when you're not the person," she said. "You kind of want to laugh, you kind of want to cry, you can't do either, you have to stay focused because you have to try to make it work."

But despite its difficulties, the rewards are many. The corps is the best part of "Swan Lake," said Eames — "without that corps, you have one girl in a tutu."

Rausch remembered her father coming to see her as a swan in the ballet's last PNB production. "He just said, it brought tears to his eyes, so beautiful ... To be a part of that, when it comes together that way, it really feels like you're a part of something important, even though you're one of 24 girls."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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