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Swans in Seattle

One way to get to know the history of a company is through the “liner notes” of its “Swan Lake” production, and for those of us continuing to build an admiring familiarity with Pacific Northwest Ballet via its digital season offerings, Kent Stowell and Francia Russell’s “Swan Lake” provides an interesting glimpse into PNB prior to Peter Boal’s leadership.

Performance

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Swan Lake”

Place

Digital stream of performance in McCall Hall, Seattle, WA, captured live on February 2, 2024 

Words

Rachel Howard

Leta Biasucci and Lucien Postlewaite with Pacific Northwest Ballet in Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

Stowell and Russell, legendary ballet spouses and former PNB co-artistic directors, created this “Swan Lake” for Frankfurt Ballet in 1976. (Now there’s a blast to the past, a pre-William Forsythe Frankfurt Ballet.) Stowell and Russell then brought it to Seattle in 1981, four years after becoming co-directors of PNB, and last refreshed it with a new production in 2003. Two decades on, this “Swan Lake” has aged respectably, the scenery by Ming Cho Lee framing the stage with ominous bare branches, the costumes by Paul Tazewell echoing those branches on the swans’ bodices (and gussying up Prince Siegfried with a Liberace-worthy Act III tunic and gold-filigree flourishes on his loins). 

True, the Act I group dances choreographed by Stowell are a little plodding (his Act III national dances are spicier), and the jokes about how much Prince Siegfried’s tutor drinks get old. Von Rothbart, when he finally appears, visibly holds a stick in each hand working the wings of a rather thin cape, making for a less than terrifying specter. I also found myself distracted by the ruined pillars flanking the white swan scenes—is this a lakeside or the Parthenon? But the traditional Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa choreography staged by Russell is the real pillar here, and with Leta Biasucci as Odette/Odile, the greatest opportunity was getting to know an extraordinary ballerina.

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers and PNB School students in Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

A principal since 2018, Biasucci has been featured almost exclusively in late twentieth century or contemporary rep in PNB’s digital offerings, and I hadn’t realized she is such a classicist. Chalk that up to body-type preconceptions: Biasucci is short, muscular, and rather square—but not when set in motion as Odette. She knows how to use her eyes to lengthen her lines—even watching her on screen, you follow her gaze along the edge of her uninhibited épaulement, right to her fingertips. The tips of her feet work as delicately as her hands, too; gathering herself before stretching into those big side développés, her toes lick the floor. Her legato control is a wonder. Even before the aid of Lucien Postlewaite’s partnering as Siegfried, the unbroken reach of her phrasing embodied the endlessness of yearning.

Postlewaite, meanwhile, was less a bravura classicist than an actor. I didn’t mind that at all. The technique was there for the Act III grande pirouettes, even as tours en l’air went under-rotated. His lines are always open and lovely, and completely of a piece with his ardor. I live near San Francisco, where our “Swan Lake” production is subdued (no Liberace tunics, to be sure!), and I’ve become accustomed to depressed, restrained Siegfrieds. Postlewaite is not afraid to emote with an exuberance to match Pepé Le Pew, but he keeps the open-mouthed gaping one degree shy of outright cartoonishness. His besotted devotion comes across in more than mugging; the drama of Siegfried waiting for Odette to place her hand in his palm at the end of the Act II pas de deux was touching.

Lucien Postlewaite and Leta Biasucci in Kent Stowell’s “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Angela Sterling

The 24-member strong swan corps of this production made its best impression in the final lakeside scene, where a great deal of care seems to have been paid to the stylings of the head and neck. But the last bit of lakeside choreography by Stowell is anti-cathartic for those of us used to seeing Odette and Siegfried throw themselves into the lake, thus breaking the spell. Here, after carrying Odette down the rows of her swan sisters in a big lift, Siegfried simply kneels with regret, and Odette leaves. Shades of Giselle, without the lilies.

Russell staged a fabulous Act One pas de trois, after Petipa’s original. Madison Rayn Abeo and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan both had marvelously springy footwork, but Ryan had that extra dash of musicality that turned a demonstration of steps into a force of nature. James Kirby Rogers always dances clean, and his jeté elancé swept it all up into a sweet package.

In a video interview with Stowell and Russell from 2009, Stowell said “I don’t want [the dancers] to feel they have to please me. I want them to please themselves . . . and our job is to help them look good.” Nearly 20 years after Peter Boal’s appointment to succeed them, Stowell and Russell’s “Swan Lake” is still helping the dancers look fabulous.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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