“Swan Lake” connects orchestra with ballet

Rohan Press, A&E Reporter

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Four days. That’s the amount of time the Walla Walla Symphony had to rehearse the score for “Swan Lake” as a unified orchestra before their performance in Cordiner Hall on Oct. 20.. 

“We only got with the dancers last night, for the very first time,” said Ed Dixon, principal cellist for the symphony. “You’ve got to have a feeling for coming together and working very quickly, making adjustments very quickly.”

That’s particularly impressive given the technical complexity and variety of expression present in “Swan Lake,” a well-known classical ballet first composed around 1875-76 by Pyotr Tchaikovsky. 

The ballet loosely follows the fairytale of the immortal love between Odette, a bewitched maiden, and Siegfried, a young prince. The two are forced to contend with the evil sorcerer Baron Von Rothbart. Because of its long history, many variants, choreographies and storylines have been used by particular ballet companies; in their particular rendition, the Walla Walla Symphony worked in collaboration with the acclaimed Eugene Ballet company, organized by Artistic Director Toni Pimble, who adopted a mixed choreography incorporating different styles and historical eras.

“’Swan Lake’ was actually choreographed by Denise Shults and Louis Godfrey — they created the first act and the third act [in 1992] — but the second and fourth act, which are the acts in which the swans appear… are pretty traditional and are based on what Ivanov created over 100 years ago,” Pimble said.

Tchaikovsky’s musical palette is equally complex and riddled with elaborate historical variations, but Dixon feels up to the challenge.

 “Tchaikovsky utilized the cello a lot, with important melodies and important moments to lead the whole thing,” Dixon said. “The whole ballet is depending on what the cello section is doing… You have to play everything very expressively, with a lot of feeling… so there’s plenty of opportunity to express the way you feel about the music.”

Due to distance between the symphony in Walla Walla and the ballet in Eugene, Oregon, the symphony only had one opportunity to rehearse the performance with the ballet group in person.

Nevertheless, symphony members have individually been working with the score for far longer.

“It’s been a couple weeks, living with it, playing it,” Dixon said.

It’s a doubled task for Yaakov Bergman, Music Director and Conductor for the symphony — not only did he have to familiarize himself with the score, but he also had to familiarize himself with the choreography. For the last two months, Bergman has been pouring over a video rendition of the choreography, absorbing every last detail.

“You develop this close relationship with every nuance, every motion, every expression… and it’s all marked in pencil on the choreography,” Bergman said.

In many ways, Bergman is the focal point of “Swan Lake” as a performance — responsible for not merely the musical cohesiveness of the orchestra, but also for the integration of the music into a visual context. Ultimately, it was Bergman’s responsibility to translate the independent work of the orchestra personnel into a context compatible with the dancers’ needs.

“’Swan Lake’ is notoriously known for tons of different cuts, different approaches,” Bergman said. “Sometimes, [for example,] you have to start the music in the middle of a jump.”

For the musicians, ballet is a unique opportunity to physicalize their creativity in the movement of the dancers. As a cellist, Dixon feels this is particularly true in the embodiment of rhythm.

“[There’s] a lot of rhythm in the cello section,” Dixon said. “Rhythm is extremely important for dances, to be able to feel that beat: is it pure and strong and dependable.”

For the musicians, ballet is a balancing act between the restrictions of its classical form and the desire to express individuality through performance.

Whitman alum Anna Maberry ‘17, second violinist for the symphony, spoke to that tension.

“I really love to milk it, to shape the phrases; there is room within that,” Maberry said about the melody. “They’re so many voices within the ensemble… you can get so many colors, so many tambres, textures and effects… I think there’s a lot of potential for expression.”

Beyond the particulars of performance, the production of “Swan Lake” was also a valuable opportunity to cultivate new artistic relationships and to establish Walla Walla as an artistic and cultural center in the Northwest.

“One of the great things about ‘Swan Lake’ is that you develop this remarkable relationship with the Eugene Ballet,” Bergman said, referencing the company’s strong reputation as a professional and engaging troupe. The company approaches ballet with an impressive amount of dedication and intensity.

“It takes a tremendous amount of rehearsal time because they all have to be dancing in sync, they all have to use the same heads and arms to give the sense of oneness,” Pimble said.

The dancers also have a responsibility to be nonverbal storytellers, conveying the fairytale of Odette and Siegfried.

“We use the whole body to help tell the story,” Pimble said. “But also we use mime gestures that were created back in the 19th century.”

Everything down to the set design is intentional. 

“The set is very dark and moonlit so that the white of the swans really stands out,” Pimble said. “The brightness of act 1 and act 3 juxtaposes the darkness of act 2 and 4 with the imprisoned swans”.

Attention to these kinds of details is exactly what draws Bergman to ballet; for him, ballet is unique, engaging all of the senses — it’s an experience in live music, drama, art and of course, dance. It’s the utmost realization of “fusion.”

That’s also, for Bergman, what makes a classical ballet like “Swan Lake” have sustained relevance in the contemporary moment: it exists at the intersection of these various art forms, forcing us to reconsider the discrete compartmentalization of art.

“You really want to take full advantage of the possibilities [of today],” Bergman said.

Ballet performance is a particularly exceptional experience for the Walla Walla community. While the Symphony performs the “Nutcracker” every two years, this is only the third ballet performance that has not been the “Nutcracker.” For many patrons and audience members, this was their first time seeing a ballet at Cordiner Hall.

“I haven’t seen a ballet here before, [though] I’ve gone to plenty of ballet performances throughout Oregon,” said spectator Nate Crockett. 

“I love watching the dancers; it takes so much training and it’s unbelievable to me [what they do],” said audience member Lianne Schellenberg. This was also her first time seeing “Swan Lake” in a live performance.

Bergman understands why ballet performances have been so resonant with the community — it all returns back to his thesis of fusion, considering ballet as a genre that engages the physical and emotional senses authentically and completely. 

“It’s the ultimate experience,” he explains. “What more could you ask for?”

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