a full moon; the rustling noise of tulle costumes and a blizzard of quick footsteps; the sound of the wind in the trees surrounding the stage. A corps de ballet of women fills a stage bathed in moonlight, as a stirring Tchaikovsky string cadence wafts through the mountain air.
This magic happens twice this summer, as Pacific Northwest Ballet takes the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater stage this week at the Vail International Dance Festival. The company, making its fourth trip to the Vail Valley, will dance two of the works that epitomize ballet; Swan Lake Act II (set for Monday night), and its 20th century counterpart, George Balanchine’s “Serenade” (which they perform tonight, opening night). In doing so, the company helps to commemorate two important anniversaries: 25 years of the Vail International Dance Festival and 40 years of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.
In four decades, Pacific Northwest Ballet has evolved from being a small adjunct to the Seattle Opera into one of America’s most beloved and respected companies. In 2005, the company welcomed just-retired New York City Ballet star Peter Boal to take over the helm after the 28-year tenure of Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, who themselves had danced with City Ballet under the direction of the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. Russell and Stowell helped to put Pacific Northwest Ballet, then a fledgling troupe of 18 dancers, on the American dance map. Today, the company has 44 dancers, a permanent home in Seattle and an impressive touring schedule that this year takes the company all over the world, from Spoleto to Victoria to Vail. “For PNB, touring has been an essential part of celebrating our 40th anniversary season,” Boal said. “After touring both nationally and internationally over the past year, our return to the VIDF has special meaning for us as the place we have toured to the most.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s visit is highlighted by the two classics that have defined centuries of ballet history. The rare luxury for audiences to see, side by side, two sweeping Tchaikovsky masterworks — created during two vastly different moments in classical dance and born on opposite sides of the world — is an ideal opening for the 25th anniversary celebration of a dance summit whose legacy has increasingly become its confluence of nations, traditions and styles.
A classic for the ages
George Balanchine once noted, “Swan Lake is always changing. That is as it should be.” The stirrings of Swan Lake as we know it today were born in 1895, when the Russian ballet masters Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created the choreography now known all over the world. True to Balanchine’s words, since then Tchaikovsky’s music and the original libretto has inspired countless reinterpretations: from Matthew Bourne’s 1995 Broadway hit, which replaced the female corps de ballet with barefooted male dancers and referenced all styles of dance from ballet to the dances of Fred Astaire, to Graeme Murphy’s 2002 version loosely based on the breakdown of the marriage of Lady Diana to Prince Charles.
It is the traditional ballet, however, that has sustained ballet companies and thrilled the most audiences for well over a century. Stowell’s version for PNB is noted for its rare restoration of the 1895 staging of the ballet’s soul: the entirety of the original Act II, the lakeside “white act.”
The entrance of the White Swan in this act is one of the most beautiful and recognizable entrances in all of ballet. As 24 swan maidens alight on the stage, Odette enters on a shower of harp notes and bows down to Prince Siegfried like a bird landing on a lake, closing its wings. Carla Korbes, a principal dancer with the company and a much loved artist who has now danced in Vail for seven consecutive seasons, has over the years developed a deep emotional affinity for the ballet.
“The music is so touching and intimate, and it helps me feel the sorrow and desperation of Odette,” Korbes said. “I love how by the end of the pas de deux, Odette is ready to open her heart to Siegfried. She walks toward him and lets him embrace and declare his love for her. It gives me chills every time I see or get to perform that section.”
Twenty-five years old when she first danced Odette, the part is now like a second skin for the Brazilian-born Korbes, whose otherworldly beauty — alabaster skin and legs that curve perfectly like a swan’s neck — is famously suited to ballet’s most beloved heroine. In a recent Vanity Fair essay, festival director Damian Woetzel called Korbes a “prophetess, arriving to explain ballets we may love and think we know but have yet to fully experience, simply because we haven’t seen her exquisite interpretation.” For Korbes, getting to perform Swan Lake in the environs of one of the world’s most beautiful outdoor amphitheaters is a special experience: “It feels magical because the breeze from the wind and the natural sounds of nature make you feel like you are actually in a real forest and lake.”
The first ‘American’ ballet
Almost 40 years after the creation of Swan Lake, a young man of Georgian descent, George Balanchine, arrived to the United States at the invitation of Lincoln Kirstein, the American arts visionary who saw the need to develop a “native” ballet style. As Kirstein explained in a widely-circulated pamphlet, American ballet “should spring from its own training and environment … from basketball courts, track and swimming meets and junior proms.” In Balanchine — who, though a Russian emigre, most naturally viewed himself as an ambassador for his adopted country — Kirstein found the man for the job. In 1933, they co-founded the School of American Ballet, where Balanchine established a training method and aesthetic that while built on the traditions of the Imperial Russian Ballet he came from, was advanced and inspired by the needs of his new choreography, and the unique style and physical gifts he came across in his American dancers.
“Serenade” was created the following year for a group of 17 students from the school, and premiered outside at an estate in White Plains, N.Y. The ballet was Balanchine’s initial response to America; he explained his opening tableau of 17 women as a balletic homage to the California orange groves which he had not yet seen himself, but had imagined in his dreams of the American West. “Serenade” was the first work Balanchine created in the United States, and it has since retained a mythic status as the “first American ballet.” Its greatest legacy, however, was its initiation of a canon that came to define 20th century ballet. Balanchine’s dances moved beyond the fairy tales of the previous century, embracing choreography without stories and streamlining decorative trappings in favor of modernist purity and simplicity. In “Serenade,” the heroines are stripped of the wings and feathers of Swan Lake; they are simply women. When Balanchine was asked what “Serenade” was about, he commented, “a dance in the moonlight.”
And yet, “Serenade” was Balanchine’s American inauguration, but it was also his homage to the two men who were towering presences and “spiritual fathers” for him, Marius Petipa and Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. Set to Tchaikovsky’s soaring Serenade for Strings in C, the ballet saluted the traditions of Balanchine’s Russian heritage and the pillars of classical dance, such as Swan Lake, with both subtle choreographic references and thematic allusions. The same motifs are there: blindness, love, fate, death and submission. As the dancers whirl on and off stage, pas de deuxs break apart, a ballerina falls to the ground and is swept away by an angel of death, and then carried aloft in an elegiac cortege. The corps de ballet is a familiarly beautiful rush of white tulle moving in unison; except for one dancer, who tries to find her place among the others, like Odette in her tribe of swans. Ultimately, despite these hints at narrative, there is no “story.” As Balanchine once remarked: “How much story do you want? You put a man and woman on a stage together, and already it’s a story.”
On Opening Night, as the curtain rises on the iconic tableau of women arranged in the orange-grove pattern of Balanchine’s imagination, their feet parallel and their right arm lifted as though shielding the moonlight, Tchaikovsky’s serenade will soar into the mountain air. Tonight, Tchaikovsky’s immortal Swan Lake melody will echo throughout the pine trees. We will experience why ballet matters, why it touches our souls and why this Tchaikovsky dance is immortal.