Houston Ballet Soars in Stanton Welch's Swan Lake

Houston Ballet Principals Yuriko Kajiya as Odile and Chun Wai Chan as Siegfried with Soloist Christopher Coomer as Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake.
Houston Ballet Principals Yuriko Kajiya as Odile and Chun Wai Chan as Siegfried with Soloist Christopher Coomer as Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet

For a show often considered the ballet of all ballets, Swan Lake appears to be fairly simple. And, to put it simply, and to borrow from a film nominated for Best Picture, “It's about a girl who gets turned into a swan and she needs love to break the spell, but her prince falls for the wrong girl so she kills herself.”

But despite its apparent simplicity, in the hands of Stanton Welch, Swan Lake is layered, boasting a depth that somehow keeps compelling throughout a guaranteed long evening at the ballet. The story, however, is the same. A young maiden, Odette, is turned into a white swan by the evil Rothbart, cursed to spend her days a bird and her nights a human. One day, Prince Siegfried, the sun setting on his bachelorhood, encounters Odette while out with his hunting party. Siegfried is immediately captivated by Odette, undeterred by her status as a bird half the day, and though she tries to resist, she’s equally taken with him. Of course, Rothbart won’t allow this, and the next evening he takes Odile, the mirror image of Odette, but wearing black, to the palace. Siegfried is fooled, declares his love for Odile and chooses her for his wife – all in front of a heartbroken Odette. Odette runs off, Rothbart flees, and the Prince chases them for a showdown in the forest.

It’s no secret that Welch’s production has drawn inspiration from John William Waterhouse's The Lady of Shalott, which itself was inspired by a Tennyson poem of the same name, about an Arthurian maiden who, cursed and in love with Sir Lancelot, fatally defies the curse for a moment of freedom. Welch’s Swan Lake opens by bringing the painting to life, as Odette, like the woman of Waterhouse's painting, ominously floats on stage in a boat to face her eventual fate, underscoring the similarities between the women and drawing out the works’ shared themes, lending a relatively simple fairytale great depth for its characters, especially Odette. It may be in Welch's tender handling of Odette that the show’s Pre-Raphaelite influences can best be seen.

Yuriko Kajiya exudes a heartbreaking, wistful vulnerability as Odette in both swan and human form. She is fragile, and from the worried, pained look on her face as she tries to resist Siegfried to the perfect joy she only briefly allows herself, she always appears to be on the verge of breaking like glass. And as a swan, the sharp angles and delicate choreography only drive the point home. Though exquisitely lovely, however, it is as Odile that Kajiya slays. From the moment Odile is unveiled by Rothbart, a devious, sly look on her face, she is a woman possessed, as evidenced by her tackling of a series of dizzying fouéttes that made the audience burst into applause.

Opposite Kajiya is Chun Wai Chan as Prince Siegfried. He is stately, regal and self-assured, a powerful presence on the stage, but at his best when Siegfried realizes his mistake with Odile, and throughout the third act.

Christopher Coomer is a threatening foil as Rothbart, and as my plus-one stated, could double as a villain in a superhero movie with his all black ensemble, cape and headpiece. One of the production's most chilling moments is when he overtakes Odette in his cape for her to emerge as a swan.

click to enlarge Monica Gomez, Katy Harvey, Tyler Donatelli and Yumiko Fukuda as Cygnets in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake. - PHOTO BY AMITAVA SARKAR, COURTESY OF HOUSTON BALLET
Monica Gomez, Katy Harvey, Tyler Donatelli and Yumiko Fukuda as Cygnets in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake.
Photo by Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Though we’re really here for the swans, and one in particular, the rest of the company is hardly forgotten. Twenty-four women dancers comprise the flock, and the precision and synchronicity they achieve is impressive, as is the Danse des petits cygnes. It’s a section we’re all waiting for in Act I, Scene 3, in which four dancers (Nina Fernandes, Aoi Fujiwara, Thays Golz and Katy Harvey) holding hands, arms interlocked, perform 16 pas de chat, and they do not disappoint.

Welch has worked the men of the company in well, primarily as part of Siegfried’s 16-man hunting party. A series of trios kicks of a section of enthusiastic dance in all kinds of combinations through Act 1, Scene II. Notable are Aaron Daniel Sharratt and Andrew Vecseri as the Prince’s friends, and Hayden Stark, who shines in a couple of mini solos as a member of the party. Thays Golz and Caroline Perry add a bit of bounce and sweetness as the Queen’s daughters. And Welch’s attention to detail and characterization is particularly apparent in his choreography for the four princesses vying for Siegfried’s attention. Each is quite distinct, with their own unique flair and mix of flicks and kicks, extensions and lifts, fouéttes, and quick feet. Jessica Collado as the Princess of Russia especially stands out, particularly in Act II.

Ermanno Florio brilliantly leads the Houston Ballet Orchestra through Tchaikovsky’s enchanting and iconic score, with a special mention going to the haunting leitmotif and oboe solo and the repeated use of the harp, adding to the show’s dreamlike quality.

There’s a flatness to Kristian Fredrikson’s set that reminds of a picture book, further embracing the production's fairy-tale feel, and the rich, saturated colors of the Pre-Raphaelite palette make for a warm, inviting place to visit. Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting is always a treat, and makes for one of the show’s most effective moments, as Odette and Siegfried kiss and lightning flashes and the black swans emerge.

Through a combination of dynamic choreography and strong characterization, Welch’s Swan Lake promises to hold an audience’s attention rapt despite the evening’s three-hour commitment. But that’s not to say that the show is without faults. The mostly even pacing dips heading into the first intermission with so much repetitive swan dancing, and again as the prince watches the princesses dance for him for a second time in Act II. Also, though one of the most fun design elements, the appearance of a dragon is a headscratcher. Still, Welch’s Swan Lake is a mesmerizing, can’t miss work, and one heck of a way to end the Houston Ballet's season.

Performances are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. June 28 and 29; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. June 30; and 2 p.m. June 24 and July 1 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $25 to $196.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.