Things To Do

Houston Ballet's Swan Lake Ascends to Greatness

Houston Ballet Principal Beckanne Sisk as Odette and Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake.
Houston Ballet Principal Beckanne Sisk as Odette and Artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake. Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Who would have thought that a little something Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky put together to entertain his nieces and nephews would eventually become, arguably, the most popular ballet of all time? Yes, it’s Swan Lake, which is closing the Houston Ballet season right now over at the Wortham Theater Center.

Swan Lake tells the story of a maiden, Odette, who is cursed by evil-doing knight Rothbart, to live her days in the form of a swan and her nights in her human form. Her only hope is to fall in love, and have someone swear their love to her. Meanwhile, Prince Siegfried is under pressure from his mother, the Queen, to choose a bride. One day while out in the forest, he encounters Odette and falls in love. But Rothbart, evildoer that he is, cannot stand for such a thing. He disguises one of his black swans, Odile, as Odette, takes her to the castle and tricks Siegfried into proposing marriage to his imposter. Of course, Odette arrives in time to see Siegfried pledge himself to Odile. A heartbroken Odette runs away, a tickled Rothbart takes off, and Siegfried can only chase after them to try to right his mistake.

Love and the battle between good and evil doesn’t age, but if Swan Lake sounds a little light on story, especially for a three-hour-long ballet, it kind of is. But those three hours (minus the two intermissions) give Artistic Director Stanton Welch all the room he needed to mine a production rich in detail, in character and – of course – in dance.

As Odette, Beckanne Sisk exudes frailty, longing and hopelessness as expressively as the joy of falling in love despite yourself. In terms of execution, her moves are crisp but gentle, an ethereal air following every motion of her body. To see Sisk as Odile, however, only makes Siegfried’s inability to distinguish between the two all the more unforgivable. As Odile, Sisk dances as if enchanted herself. It’s uncanny; Sisk dances as though going through the motions, a smile pasted on her face, with just a touch of frenetic energy. There’s something wicked about her, but thrilling, and it all culminates in the riveting – and dizzying – series of fouettés everyone who’s familiar with Swan Lake anxiously waits for.

Chase O’Connell acts the role of Siegfried well, particularly his disinterest in the eligible bachelorettes and his horror at choosing the wrong swan-woman. In terms of dance, he makes the role of Siegfried look easy, effortless, so much so that it makes the choreography look just a bit pedestrian.
click to enlarge
Houston Ballet Principals Beckanne Sisk as Odette and Chase O’Connell as Prince Siegfried with Corps de Ballet dancer Riley McMurray as Rothbart in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
Riley McMurray’s malevolent Rothbart is both threatening and uber-dramatic. It’s genuinely nightmarish to watch McMurray’s Rothbart rush in and manipulate Odette’s movements just as it’s ridiculously campy the maniacal laugh he mimes before, well, swan diving off stage. Real talk, when Rothbart and Odile enter the second act they emerge looking like a magician and his assistant. And yet, it works really well for the production.

The entire company is utilized to excellent effect. The choreography requires perfect timing and synchronicity, and all of the dancers do well. The men of the hunting party (led by Chandler Dalton and Simone Acri) show power with their jumps and leaps, and it matches the rambunctious of Tchaikovsky’s score, which easily sways between haunting and upbeat. Props to Ermanno Florio and the Houston Ballet Orchestra for their yeoman-like work to bring Tchaikovsky’s music to life.

In a moment that shows that Welch left no second of said score unconsidered, the transition of the party to the deeper recesses of the forest is a breathless display of constant motion. Welch’s choreography for the princesses – Jacquelyn Long, Tyler Donatelli, Alyssa Springer and Aoi Fujiwara – add compelling flashes to the production, with a mix of quick and complex footwork, crowd-pleasing fouettés and quirky flourishes. The same can be said for the corps de ballet as they seamlessly perform various series of synchronous and complimentary moves.

And let’s not forget – because how could you – the pas de quatre. Danced by Fujiwara, Jaci Doty, Emma Forrester and Chae Eun Yang, the anticipation for the ballet’s signature moment was palpable and these swans did not disappoint as they together performed 16 pas de chat.
click to enlarge
Houston Ballet Principal Beckanne Sisk as Odette in Stanton Welch’s Swan Lake.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox, Courtesy of Houston Ballet
The influence of John William Waterhouse’s "The Lady of Shalott" is plainly apparent and most noticeable in the ballet’s opening scene, which sees Odette enter as the lady of the painting – in a boat, floating ominously towards her fate. The set design, by the late Kristian Fredrickson, is reminiscent of a child’s pop-up storybook with two very distinct worlds: the forest and the castle’s ballroom. Both are vivid, but it’s the opulent mosaic-like backdrop of the ballroom – with its echoes of medieval romanticism and Byzantine art – that proves to be the jaw-dropper.

Both are also matched beautifully by Lisa J. Pinkham’s lighting choices, such as the otherworldly blue that emanates in the forest and the warm golds from the votives and chandeliers in the castle.

Fredrickson also contributed the costumes, and they draw from a regal color palette, with the visiting princesses allowing for some much-needed variety in design. It’s Rothbart’s design, however, from the headdress to the glittering black cape, that is by far the most interesting. Of course, Swan Lake is a “white ballet,” and the production closes powerfully on this gorgeous image – the corps in full formation, all adorned in white tutus, on pointe and in perfect sync, with arms gracefully flapping. It’s a gorgeous sight.

Houston Ballet’s season-ending production of Swan Lake is everything you could hope for. It’s a beautifully dressed epic, a timeless tale with captivating choreography and compelling acting. Yeah, the connection between Rothbart and the dragon I don’t entirely get, but who complains about a dragon? Heck, it looks really cool, so let’s just add it to the long list of reasons why Welch’s Swan Lake is a must-see.

Performances will continue at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday through June 18 at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, call 713-227-2787 or visit $25-$220.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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.