The Setup: Few ballets are as well-known as Swan Lake the Russian ballet made famous by Marius Petipa's and Lev Ivanov's 1895 revival. Stanton Welch staged his version with Houston Ballet in 2006; inspired by John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shallott, his Swan Lake takes its aesthetic from the fairy tale valence of pre-Raphaelite painting. Houston Ballet closes its 2013-2014 season with this Tchaikovsky-fueled classic.
The Execution: Swan Lake is traditionally a lengthy enterprise even though the storyline is pretty thin as far as fairy tales go. The beautiful young maiden Odette, here embellished with tendrils of curling brown hair, meets the evil Rothbart on a chance encounter in the forest. He turns her into a white swan, and like the rest of his flock of captured maidens, Odette can only materialize in human form during the night. Prince Seigfried, on the threshold of choosing a wife amongst a bevy of European princesses, finds Odette during a hunting party and falls in love with her. Even when she is in Swan form, he is smitten and pledges his devotion to her. Rothbart, of course, will not release his beautiful possession. When Rothbart tricks Seigfriend into falling in love with Odile, a mirror image of Odette in black, the real Odette runs away with a broken heart, meeting a tragic end.
Even though this is a star vehicle Odette/Odile, and Prince Seigfried is the only male character with a real dancing role, Welch makes wonderful use of the company as a whole. Then men get an entire scene in Act I as part of Seigfriend's hunting party, and their power and elegance sets the dynamic energy that characterizes his Swan Lake. And the four European princesses, danced on opening night by Katerine Precourt, Nao Kusuzaki, Allison Miller, and Melody Mennite, as well as their dignitaries add some pleasant royal steps to the white feathered affair. I particularly enjoyed his staging of the swans in the forest scene of Act I, with the pas de quatre, duet, and solos seamlessly feeding into each other as opposed to broken up by sudden and un-swanlike entrances and exits.
On opening night, Sara Webb dazzled in the dual role of Odette/Odile, the beautiful White Swan and her equally dazzling Black counterpart. I especially enjoyed her Odette, her arms carefully articulating the flurry of her heart's desire and her longing to be rid of Rothbart's evil spell. Then again, she was equally compelling dancing Odile's coda, the exhilarating finale of the Black Swan variation.
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Connor Walsh, who has proven all season his ability to fully commit and excel in contemporary roles, returned to his princely signature and made for a well-executed love-racked Sigfried. The role is a demanding one, but he handled it with ease while also acting through the key moments of emotional development.
The designs of the late Kristian Fredrikson are also noteworthy. The costumes and sets of the royal scenes are appropriately Byzantine in color; there's plenty of burnt orange and charred yellow and crushed green. His palette evokes a fairy tale scenario, but not the fluffy confections of Madame d'Aulnoy. The fairy world of Welch's Swan Lake is filled with mystery, intrigue, and an adult sense of whimsy that feels both magical and mature.
The Verdict: Despite its three-hour run time, Stanton Welch's pre-Raphaelite inspired take on Swan Lake moves at quick and even pace. His staging and choreographic flourishes keep the stage alive and active, which is no easy feat when over half the cast is dancing as water fowl. Visually, this Swan Lake is rich and layered without feeling precious or ornamental. Even if one is overly familiar with the Tchaikovsky score and the Odette/Odile variations, this swan will feel inspired.
Sara Webb, Karina Gonzalez, Melody Mennite, Katherine Precourt, and Nozomi Iijima will alternate the roles of Odette/Odile, while Connor Walsh, Simon Ball, Ian Casady, Linnar Looris, and Aaron Robison will alternate the role of Prince Sigfried. Swan Lake runs through June 15 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit the ballet's website.