For the first time in 15 years, the Sacramento Ballet will perform “Swan Lake,” drawing on the co-artistic directors’ extensive personal ties to the piece, a history that includes touring and dancing in the early 1980s with the legendary Rudolf Nureyev.
The first of four performances is March 26 at the Community Center Theater and continues through March 29, featuring alternating sets of dancers in the two lead roles. A four-act love story of Prince Siegfried and Odette, the swan queen, this classic ballet is most noteworthy for the beautiful and evocative music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the refined style in which the dance is performed.
For the husband-and-wife artistic directors, Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda, it is both a walk down memory lane and an opportunity to pass along their deep knowledge of the piece to a new generation of dancers.
“Ron and Carinne have done this ballet so many times that we have absolute trust in whatever they tell us,” said Stefan Calka, who stars as Prince Siegfried with Alexandra Cunningham on opening night, alternating with Richard Porter and guest artist Susan Gartell.
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In fact, the Sacramento Ballet’s website includes an in-depth rundown of Cunningham’s and Binda’s work with “Swan Lake,” including their stint with the Boston Ballet, where Nureyev danced soon after defecting from the then-Soviet Union.
“It has been an inspiration to us our entire careers,” said Ron Cunningham. “All dancers want to be able to dance it, whether you are the swan queen or you’re in the corps de ballet.
“It’s not just about being able to put it on your résumé. It’s being fulfilled by this great masterpiece that has lasted 120 years.”
Swan Lake originally was choreographed for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow in 1877, but a 1895 revival of the ballet is the basis for most modern stagings of the work.
Known for her demanding rehearsal schedule and attention to detail, Binda says she finds herself poring over ideas day and night and having epiphanies that emerge at all hours.
“Ron will be talking about something else and I’ll just make this random comment – ‘You know, I think the prince is bipolar because he’s too happy and too depressed’ – and we’ll talk until midnight or 1 a.m,” she said.
Binda added, “I was very nervous bringing ‘Swan Lake’ back because I felt a lot of responsibility. I realized that the first time we staged it in 1991, I had danced it just eight years earlier. It was clearer in my muscles and in my memory than it is now.”
There is plenty riding on getting it right, both as an homage to the greats who have performed “Swan Lake” around the world and as an opportunity to infuse new life in a classic work of art.
Binda keeps detailed handwritten notes about how the rehearsals have progressed, along with a schedule of what to work on each day leading up to opening night. Audiences have already seen flashes of what’s to come, including an in-studio performance that gives Binda and others a customer-is-always-right idea of what’s working and what needs to be refined.
“Every time the public sees a little bit more,” Binda said in an interview last week, “the dancers are testing the response, the stillness in the room, the expressions on people’s faces. I mean, if I’m dancing in front of you and you’re looking somewhere else, it’s brutal.”
Because the lead roles are so physically difficult – the ballet is 21/2 hours long – it would be too taxing to dance on back-to-back nights. While alternating the roles means twice as many rehearsals and more hours in studio, it also helps the artists collaborate in ways large and small.
Beyond the dancing, there is the brilliant, recognizable music, which is at turns haunting and flowing.
“I have listened to this music ever since I was a child. It’s just gorgeous – at points powerful and at other points emotional,” said Alexandra Cunningham, daughter of Binda and Ron Cunningham. “The music runs the full gamut of emotions. It’s just something that it’s a real honor to be able to dance. I’ve seen videos of very famous ballerinas dancing this and extraordinary companies dancing this. It comes with a lot of history. I hope I do it justice.”
“The sort of reverence that we have for ‘Swan Lake’ means that we have to keep it fresh and real to keep it alive,” said Calka. “It’s a ballet that’s over 100 years old, so if we just go out and do the stereotypical archetypes of the sad prince and a swan princess, it doesn’t work. You have to somehow show the human qualities that are the prince and the swan.”
Then there are its technical demands. The dancers hope the audience don’t see how hard and how nuanced it all is, especially the role of Odette, often danced with the guidance of the prince. In honing the steps, Alexandra Cunningham says she can feel Calka’s hand on her back at times, occasionally nudging her just enough to make everything fall into place.
“I’m there should something go wrong,” Calka said. “If she’s a little off I’m going to fix it very subtly.”
“Which is amazing me,” said Alexandra Cunningham. “I don’t know how male partners do that. It’s totally a mystery to me. I’m wearing a tutu, so they can’t even see my legs, so they feel in their hands these weight changes and make all of these minor adjustments for us. It’s fantastic.”
And if all the rehearsals and refining have paid off, it’s the part of “Swan Lake” you won’t know you’re watching.
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What: Sacramento Ballet presents the classic ballet about a princess turned into a swan by a curse; score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
When: 7:30 p.m. March 26-28; 2 p.m. March 29
Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
Information: www.sacballet.org; (916) 552-5800 ext. 2