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Magic Act

The Ballet's Swan Lake is all about transformations -- such as dancer to star

These days, Houston Ballet principal dancer Barbara Bears is no doubt feeling pain far worse than that caused by the stress fracture she suffered below her left knee during rehearsals for the recently completed Balanchine Celebration. Her injury prevented Bears from dancing in the Balanchine program, but perhaps even more heartbreaking, it also made it impossible for her to dance the lead role she had been assigned in Swan Lake last Thursday. Swan Lake is one of the ultimate measures of success in a ballerina's career; the opportunity it allows a dancer in terms of drama and technique as she shifts from the soft and lyrical Odette to the sharp and thrilling Odile is unmatched in classical ballet. Anna Pavlova made the role, and the characteristic folded swan posture, famous through silent film, and Margot Fonteyn was also noted for her exceptionally moving performances as the Swan Queen.

Though Bears has danced the role before, this was still a chance for her to show her stuff in a company that, for the first time in two decades, has no dominant female star. For fans of the Ballet, Swan Lake promised to give them a look at some of the contenders for Janie Parker's throne. Not only Bears, but Rachel Jonell Beard, Lauren Anderson and Tiekka Schofield had been cast in the dual Odette/Odile role, and much had been made of the fact that for Anderson and Schofield, this would be their first time dancing Swan Lake's lead. (Beard, like Bears, has done it before.)

But when the curtain went up on opening night last week, none of the expected ballerinas took center stage. Instead, Dawn Scannell, a petite dancer who joined the Ballet in 1985 after two summers at the Houston Ballet Academy, was Bears' replacement. An intelligent ballerina who doesn't fit the standard long and tall mold, Scannell, who was promoted to principal this year, has earned a reputation as an exquisitely clean performer. Though she's had her share of prime roles, she's tended more often to dance just outside the center of the spotlight, making her presence known in supporting parts.

At the season premiere of Swan Lake, though, Scannell danced a dramatic Swan Queen, fluttering with a divine purpose and skillfully balancing the virtuous Odette with the wicked Odile. Following the story of a girl transformed into a swan by a sorcerer, Swan Lake's enduring popularity over the last 100 years has a lot to do with its principal roles. It's one of two classical ballets that features a significant role for a male dancer that keeps him on-stage for much of the action, and perhaps the one classical ballet made famous for a showboating sequence of solos in the third act, where Odette/Odile turns endless fouettes (Scannell did 25) and Prince Siegfried pulls off a difficult series of leaps. But because of that showboating, Swan Lake is also a ballet where the ensemble spends a great amount of time standing on the sidelines. Audiences flock to Swan Lake to see stars dance the major roles, but there's a distinct sense of unfairness in seeing so many other dancers standing around for the majority of the ballet.

Despite the rose-colored glance back to a more romantic era, there are occasional reminders of 19th-century conventions in this production: in the prologue, a mechanical swan floats by immediately after Odette is transformed into the bird by the sorcerer Von Rothbart, and at the ballet's conclusion, Siegfried and Odette float by in a swan boat, either on their way to paradise or quickly resurrected following a cliff-jumping suicide. Still, Ballet artistic director Ben Stevenson's stage picture is a pretty one, with delicate corps formations that suggest the flight of a flock of swans, and several suspense ridden pas de deux, with Odette enduring the price of her spell by having to return to her flock at dawn.

The ballet's most celebrated passages -- the delicate swan chain, the appearance of Odile in the third act and, finally, the double suicide of Odette and Siegfried, are as well-crafted as they are moving. Scannell's attention to the smallest details of her role as Odette, the fluttering of fingertips and her reluctance to leave her beloved prince, center the ballet emotionally. She danced a precise and wicked black-costumed Odile, the magician's daughter who tricks the prince into thinking she's his spell-stricken lover. Carlos Acosta danced a strong and sensitive Prince Siegfried, utterly smitten with Odette and stunned into submission by Odile. Acosta performed flawlessly on opening night, and made an interesting partner for the petite Scannell, spinning her with terrific force. He also proved himself a talented flirt, courting the princesses his mother selected with a tender grace.

The weak spot in this production was Von Rothbart's laughable costuming. Though he's supposed to be a horrific creature, designer David Walker outfitted the sorcerer in a bird helmet and a set of wings that flap about like burlap. The costume renders the role comical, especially when Von Rothbart drives Siegfried back from Odette, and the prince must cover his face to protect himself from what should be, but isn't, horror.

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