As exciting as it is to watch a perfectly synchronized corps of white-tutu-ed ballerinas execute graceful arabesques, the real thrill for many audience members at the Russian National Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake will be staying up past their bedtimes.
Swan Lake has a special hold on the kiddie set. According to the troupe’s artistic director Sergey Radchenko, the phenomenon transcends all cultural boundaries. “In Germany, maybe one-third of the house were children,” he recalls, gamely conducting an interview in a language he’s still working to learn. “Old Mama and Papa always bring the children.”
Asheville should be no exception to the trend, with the bulk of the $3,000 worth of free student tickets distributed this year by Asheville Bravo! Concerts being saved for this event. Bravo! has also subsidized tickets for local dance students.
“There’s going to be a huge lot of children there,” confirms Bravo! Marketing Director Sarah Oram.
Commissioned in 1875 by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev of the Russian Imperial Theatre, Swan Lake has turned its back on elitism to take its place as classical dance’s Welcome Wagon. The ballet is one of just 15 the New York City Ballet has christened “particularly accessible and suited to the enjoyment of young people.” While the company endorses the George Balanchine choreography included in its repertory, the ballet is the only one set in the 19th century to make the G-rated list.
Radchenko suspects the appeal is rooted in the audience’s familiarity with the Swan Lake fairy tale. Although early Western children’s literature is swimming in swans, no single story guided the development of the libretto, which, while credited to Begichev and Vasily Fedorovich Geltser, was probably spearheaded by Begichev’s old friend and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. His tale of an evil sorcerer, cursed maidens and a heartbroken prince has since been retold in a score of picture books.
But young Americans aren’t as likely to own a copy – even the version starring Barbie as the doomed Odette – as are their Russian comrades. So they shuffle into the theater seeking something new and exciting, which Asheville Ballet Director Ann Dunn guarantees they’ll find.
“It’s compelling to see,” says Dunn. “It’s got a terrific bad guy in it, it’s got magic, it’s got a lot of athleticism in it. I think little boys will especially enjoy it.”
Dunn, whose company presented Swan Lake last year, will give a pre-show talk to help parents and children make sense of the ballet. She’s planning to bring a tutu, pointe shoes and two members of the Asheville Ballet, who will gently ease their audience into the daunting world of dance theory by demonstrating a few of the recurrent movements featured in Swan Lake.
“Swan Lake is a wonderful first ballet, as long as there’s preparation,” Dunn says.
She suggests ticket holders consider reading up on the plot before the performance, a narrative she ventures to render in contemporary terms: “It’s exactly like Star Wars, but a little bit whiter.”
Dunn also recommends listening to the score, which might spark a discussion about the similarities between the long, corporeal lines of ballet and the drawn-out sound waves of music.
“Well, maybe that’s too complicated,” Dunn concedes. “Even parents probably don’t understand that.”
But parents will certainly hear something about the spectacle of long, lean bodies at Dunn’s talk. Classical ballet freed the dancer from the floor-length, heavy skirt that modesty had long mandated. Nineteenth-century ballerinas clipped their skirts to show off their virtuosic work en pointe, a technique that traveled from France to Italy to Russia, where the Imperial family applauded performers’ mastery of the ethereal style. Every member of the Tsar’s clan patronized the arts, a habit Dunn would like to see Ashevilleans emulate.
“I love to see families going to artistic events together, instead of hiring a babysitter.”
[Contributing writer Hanna Miller lives in Asheville.]
Asheville Bravo! Concerts presents the Russian National Ballet’s Swan Lake at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25. Tickets range from $25-$55, with half-price tickets available for children and full-time students. Call 251-5505 to purchase tickets. Asheville Ballet Director Ann Dunn will give a free pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m.; call 225-5887 for more information.