A tale of two swans: Joffrey Ballet’s fresh take on classic ‘Swan Lake’

October 19, 2014
The DePaulia
Emily Clement


The curtain rose on a spare, but elegant set that appeared to be lit by skylight.  Dancers dressed for rehearsal began to file in, gossiping and stretching.  From there, it was a joyful and theatrical journey through fairytale and fantasy.

The Joffrey Ballet’s performance of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake” premiered to a full house and a vocally enthusiastic crowd Wednesday night and no wonder – classic hasn’t been this fresh since Blair Waldorf donned her first headband.  The beloved tale was reimagined by Wheeldon as a story within a story, inspired by Edgar Degas’ popular paintings of ballet rehearsals and Paris in the late 1800s.

“You see not only the fairytale of “Swan Lake”, but you also see the real life rehearsal room and that sort of backstage looked like and how a production was put together in the late 1800s,” Wheeldon said. “You’re getting “Swan Lake”, but you’re seeing it through a very different lens.”

The ballet is, from start to finish, relentlessly indulgent.  The dancers’ talent is only heightened by the superb costumes, sets and lighting.  The influence of Degas is obvious, from the ribbons worn around the dancers’ necks to their reflections, reminiscent of the impressionist’s paintings, in the huge mottled mirror that served as most of the set.

The story within a story is never overcomplicated, making the familiar plot easy to follow, even for a ballet novice.  The dancers’ acting paired with the classic score draws the narrative along easily.

Joffrey - Swan Lake ft. Jeraldine Mendoza - Photo by Cheryl MannAct II is the highlight of the show.  In the Dance of the Cygnets, four ballerinas dance, arm-in-arm, with such inhuman precision and coordination that they become swans before the audience’s eyes.  The Prince Siegfried and Odette’s pas de deux is stunning and emotional, especially against the backdrop of 18 ballerinas shimmering en pointe.

The third act is the largest departure from the classic ballet, but also the most fun.  We are back in reality at the studio where a gala is taking place.  A variety of dances are featured, from a Russian dance to the can-can.  Here, the costumes are bright and variegated and the spirit of the show is how one might imagine a rowdy Parisian nightclub.  In the midst of this, Odile enters to seduce the prince.  Their dance is one of the most physically impressive of the night.

The final act is a return to the fairytale.  The dramatic conclusion plays well against the stark backdrop of a moody blue lake.  Odette and Prince Siegfried continued their dance from Act II, but the feeling palpably shifted from hopeful to achingly sad.  Odette and her swans dance off-stage in one of the most visually rich scenes of the night.

As the staging shifts from fantasy to reality, the audience is presented with one final tableau plucked right from Degas’ “The Dance Foyer at the Opera on the rue Le Peletier” as the ballerinas file in to rehearsal.