Artistic Director’s Notebook: Swan Lake

Swan Lake defines a classical ballet company. It offers the epitome of cohesion for a corps de ballet, the apex of artistry for principal dancers, a challenge and a triumph for an orchestra, and an opportunity to lay claim to greatness. It certainly helped to elevate the reputation and expectations of a fledgling Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1981, less than four years after founding Artistic Directors Kent Stowell and Francia Russell arrived in Seattle. 


I can only imagine the conversation between Kent and Francia, when they realized their continual daily emphasis on excellence was starting to take hold. The time was right to tackle Swan Lake. I imagine Francia saw the fifth positions, the pointed feet, and the elegance of line, while Kent recognized the strength in partnering and the heightened artistry that signaled a new day for the young company. The two had already staged a successful production in Frankfurt, Germany. This would be the genesis for PNB’s production. They had also built support and trust in the Seattle community. Though they had a true champion in Board Chair, John Iverson, I’m sure there was skepticism among fellow trustees. Swan Lake required four acts – complete with elaborate scenery, 175 costumes, and a quarter million-dollar budget. 


I commend Kent and Francia for their bravery and conviction. The decision to present Swan Lake was a brilliant one – taking a rising regional company to a level of national renown. Swan Lake not only enthralled audiences, but boosted revenues at the box office. The building of a full-length story ballet can be a wonderfully bonding experience for a company, even with multiple challenges along the way. Despite the obstacles, the collective accomplishment of unveiling a masterpiece is unrivaled. I imagine the curtain coming down at the end of the run with Deborah Hadley (Odette/Odile) and Jory Hancock (Prince Siegfried) being crowned hometown stars. There must have been a newfound confidence for everyone in the company. A bold look to the future inspired by a brave vision.


Swan Lake has been a constant in PNB’s history. To mark the 2003 reopening of the Seattle Opera House as Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, Kent and Francia decided to give Swan Lake a redesign. Kent turned to frequent collaborators Ming Cho Lee for scenic designs, and Randall (Rico) Chiarelli for lighting design. This PNB dream team triumphed again, with the addition of costume designer Paul Tazewell. Paul is everywhere these days with an Academy award nomination for his work on the film West Side Story and the Broadway opening of MJ the Musical. I did not see PNB’s Swan Lake prior to the 2003 make-over, but I honestly can’t picture it any other way. The simplicity and power of Ming’s lines, the aura of Rico’s lighting, and the splash of Paul’s palette seem perfect. The underlying architecture of Francia’s staging of the white acts based on original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, plus Kent’s own choreographic contributions, are sublime.


Kent and Francia have been back in our studios almost every day over the past weeks with former PNB ballerina Louise Nadeau. Each offers invaluable coaching. Watching them reminds us of how the legacy of Swan Lake continues. For PNB, Swan Lake has been the story of trying your wings. As we close our 49th season and look ahead to a milestone anniversary, we anticipate many more presentations of Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake plus countless other new and treasured works. Watch as PNB continues to soar. 



Featured photo: Lesley Rausch in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake, photo (c) Lindsay Thomas.