“I’m working on expressing more contempt and sarcasm,” said ballerina Jennifer Grace as she prepared for the demanding dual role of Odette/Odile in Colorado Ballet’s October production of “Swan Lake.”
That is quite a leap for Grace, a willowy blond with a ready smile, who said she is “not an overly feisty person.” Never-the-less, she expects the role of evil sorceress Odile to be “great fun.”
“It pushes you to expand your facial expressions,” Grace said during a rehearsal break at Colorado Ballet’s headquarters in the Art District on Santa Fe.
Grace is also depicting the far gentler Odette, an enchanted princess doomed to spend her days as a swan gliding on a lake – until true love breaks the spell.
The classical ballet, a dark fairytale set to Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky’s celebrated score, runs Oct. 6-15 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver. Colorado Ballet’s 2023-24 season also includes the company’s award-winning “Nutcracker,” the Gothic horror tale of “Jekyll & Hyde;” “Coppélia,” a comedy about a seductive mechanical doll; and the contemporary showcase, “Ballet Masterworks.”
“Swan Lake” famously flopped at its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877. Critics savaged the story, choreography and high drama of Tchaikovsky’s music. That early version was very different from the “Swan Lake” audiences see today. In 1895, choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov rescued the ballet, equipping it with new steps and a revised story. Today, “Swan Lake” is one of the most popular ballets of all time. Although Colorado Ballet’s classical production is based on Petipa’s, pop versions abound, including the Muppets’ “Swine Lake” and a film version starring Barbie.
The joy of morphing into somebody else
Grace has her own connection to “Swan Lake.” The ballerina, who hails from Bozeman, Montana, journeyed to Russia at age 13 to study at “Swan Lake’s” birthplace: the renowned Bolshoi Ballet. Now a principal dancer with the Colorado Ballet, she cited a deep love of performing, especially in portraying emotion.
“The connection you have with the audience is truly fantastic,” Grace said. “When you’re on stage, you can’t see the audience but you can feel them. At heartbreaking moments, you can feel a catch of breath.”
Like Grace, principal dancer Jonnathan Ramirez relishes acting a part. In “Swan Lake,” he will portray Odette’s ill-fated lover, Prince Siegfreid.
The most joyful part of ballet, said the tall, athletic danseur (male dancer), is “to become somebody else for a couple of hours.”
In the story, Prince Siegfried is hunting by a lake one evening when he sights a flock of swans. As he aims his arrow, the swans transform into young women, including the beautiful Odette. The two dance together in the moonlight, and begin to fall in love – but that love is threatened when Odette’s evil double Odile turns up.
“He has this pressure about finding the right woman,” said Ramirez, of Prince Siegfried. “He finally opens his heart, and it leads to tragedy.”
The Colombian-born dancer left home at age 8 to attend El Instituto Colombiano de Ballet Clásico (the Colombian Institute of Ballet).
“It was difficult at first because the ballet school was next to a military school, divided only by a tiny creek,” he said. “The military kids would jump over the creek and call us names, try to pick fights.”
After Ramirez graduated, he accepted a scholarship at American Ballet Theatre and moved to New York City alone, at age 16. Luckily, he found a host family who took him in. Now they regularly travel to Denver to attend all his performances.
“They became like my family,” said Ramirez.
Demi-soloist Ariel McCarty, who grew up in Allen, Texas, also has a passion for depicting character through dance. McCarty will appear in “Swan Lake,” although like many in the company, she had not been cast in a specific role by press time.
In last season’s hit, “Lady of the Camellias,” McCarty cherished her role as the young Parisienne, Nichette.
“She was kind but strong,” she said of her character. “That’s something I’ve always wanted to grow into personally.”
A beloved classic that’s tough to dance
Audiences may marvel that dancers can invest this kind of emotion in their roles, while executing pirouettes (spins on one foot), tour jeté (a turning leap) and cabrioles (beating both legs together in mid-air). Ballet is a demanding art form, and “Swan Lake” ranks as one of the most difficult of all.
Odile’s infamous 32 fouettés (a whipping turn performed on one leg) in Act III — have tested many a ballerina throughout the ballet’s 150-year history. Cold, manipulative Odile and her infatuated prince dance an intricate pas de deux (a five-part dance for two) that borders on an Olympic feat. On stage, it looks effortless, but behind the scenes lie many grueling hours of practice and sweat.
An oft-cited 2014 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine tested ballet dancers vs. football players for endurance. The ballet dancers won by a wide margin.
Although “Swan Lake” presents a high hurdle, Artistic Director Gil Boggs clearly believes his dancers are up to the task. The 62-year-old company, which now employs 36 artists from around the world, has upped its game with increasing technical finesse, stunning sets and costumes, and a live orchestra at every performance. Denver was recently ranked one of the top U.S. cities for dance attendance by the National Endowments for the Arts. Not bad for a Western cow town known for multiple sports stadiums.
Boggs said he is especially pleased by the growing diversity of Colorado Ballet audiences.
“I love the gentlemen that come in their cowboy hats and cowboy boots,” he said, with a grin.
A gentler, kinder approach
Boggs took the reins as artistic director in 2006, and runs the company with his wife, Sandra Brown, assistant to the artistic director and ballet master. The company has three ballet masters: Brown, Lorita Travaglia and Maria Mosina. Previously, Boggs and Brown were principal dancers with the American Ballet Theatre in New York.
Boggs said his company is influenced by classical Russian technique but with a caveat.
“We use a gentler, kinder approach. I’m not a dictator. I allow freedom,” he said. “It’s so important to me that we create a nourishing atmosphere, a place where people wake up and want to come do this every day.”
As a Black ballerina, Ariel McCarty appreciates this approach. McCarty fell in love with dance at age 3 but felt isolated in many of her classes. Although ballet has a rich history of Black ballerinas, it remains a notoriously White art form. Still, she said she feels welcome at Colorado Ballet.
“Gil has cultivated an atmosphere that’s very supportive. He’s one of the most open people I’ve encountered,” McCarty said.
With this nurturing atmosphere, it’s no wonder that Colorado Ballet dancers are soaring to new heights.
Is that why so many Denverites are going to the ballet? If mind-boggling athleticism, haunting stories and emotional depth aren’t enough, there may be another reason.
Perhaps the song “At the Ballet” from the Broadway musical, “A Chorus Line,” puts it best:
“Everything was beautiful at the ballet. Graceful men lift lovely girls in white. Yes, everything was beautiful at the ballet. Hey! I was happy... at the ballet.