In 2006, Christopher Stowell had been at the helm of OBT for only three seasons, but he felt the time was already right. Portlanders were eagerly watching as their resident ballet company swiftly grew in scale and scope, and saw its artistic focus shift. Stowell knew it was the perfect moment to define OBT’s role in the community, and at the same time, to give the dancers that were embodying his new vision of OBT the unifying, strengthening, and proud experience of presenting a full length classical ballet— the backbone and standard-measurer of the art form. He decided to stage Swan Lake.
In an era when tradition and historical precedents in the arts are being vigorously questioned, the challenge of presenting a ballet as familiar— and old— as Swan Lake in a fresh way, with an energy reflecting the people on stage and in the house, is significant. Despite the reliability of selling tickets on the name recognition of Swan Lake, the gamble is appearing to be stuck in the past. But Stowell saw this as a chance to honor the undeniable pull of the original work while putting his own stamp on it. “Once I decided that we should do this, that it was important for OBT’s growth as a company and as a presence in the community— and the sole provider of the language of classical ballet— I thought, ‘How can I tell this story differently, in a way that will give more opportunity to more dancers, and help audiences appreciate the art form’s history?’
He turned to the music for answers. Tchaikovsky wrote over three hours of music for Swan Lake, much of it never heard in ballet performances, but all of it “pure genius,” as Stowell puts it. Listening helped him form ideas for a remake. “I love research, I love investigating,” he says. “What did Tchaikovsky, Petipa and Ivanov have in mind? The score tells you a lot.” The most notable addition in the version Stowell created for OBT is the addition of a pas de trois in Act. 3, where audiences usually only see a handful of entertaining divertissments at Prince Sigfried’s birthday party, preceded by several dancing princesses hoping to catch his attention, and of course the famous Black Swan pas de deux. Part of Stowell’s motivation for having OBT do a full length ballet was so the dancers could feel the gratification of coalescing as a company to pull off a massive, multi-faceted effort, and in so doing, emphasize that no one person’s role was insignificant. An effective means to that end, the addition of the Act 3 pas de trois created a new narrative through line by making the pas de trois dancers actual characters with a relationship to Prince Sigfried (they also appear at his gathering in Act 1).
Stowell’s musical investigations revealed unused sections of Tchaikovsky’s original score that particularly captivated him, including the pieces that became the Act 3 pas de trois. He was intrigued by how he might use musical flavor to brighten these dancers’ nameless characters and give the audience a sense of who they might be. “It’s dance-y, but also more filigreed, and that’s what I was after in the Act 3 pas de trois. I wanted more delicacy, footwork and accents, versus Act 1, which is more straightforward rhythmically.” The result is distinctly “Stowell-esque” in style, yet with an unmistakably classical form.
For this season’s production (after its premiere in 2006, OBT performed it again in 2008 and 2013), Stowell has returned to Portland to oversee rehearsals. In the ballet’s previous runs, time crunches prevented much tweaking, but this season he’s reworked sections he’d previously found just short of fully satisfying. The Swans’ waltz in Act 2 has a new complexity, and the Act 4 pas de deux also got a refresh. “I’m much happier with it now,” he commented. “Before, I loved one phrase but the next seemed dull. As I started re-choreographing, what came out of me was more fluid, more romantic, and I was enjoying that. And as the dancers kept going in that direction, it became more about the narrative and tension between the two of them, instead of just pretty steps.”
To streamline the production for its 2023 performances, Stowell has also slightly trimmed the music in subtle ways that will be unnoticed by almost everyone except the dancers. He wasn’t disappointed to remove, for example, a repeated series of fanfares announcing the Princess’ entrances in Act 3. In the 15 years since he first choreographed his Swan Lake, he says his motivation and perspective on classic works in the modern world has shifted. “Interestingly, this is indicative of how my mind has changed since 2006, when I was really interested in understanding what Tchaikovsky, Petipa, and Ivanov were thinking,” he says. “Now, I feel like I’ve gone through that exercise. I’m more interested in momentum, dramatic flow, narrative, and less interested in being overly authentic. So now, I don’t feel we need those extra fanfares— they’re interesting musically, but don’t really help push the story forward.”
In comparison to other remakes of Swan Lake (and other iconic classical ballets like Sleeping Beauty and Giselle), the Stowell/OBT version does remain largely traditional. But Stowell was also a contributing choreographer to the National Ballet of Canada’s 2020 Swan Lake, which took some radical steps away from precedent. The Swan corps de ballet wore classical tutus— but no tights, showing the individuality of each dancer within the cohesive flock. And Act 1’s festivities show groups of young people having fun dancing together much as they would in today’s world, without rigid male/female pairings. Did Stowell consider updating his version for OBT in similar ways? Stowell says it didn’t feel necessary or the right situation to do so, since the production already existed and had certain unremovable parameters, like the physical production elements. But the question of how— and why, and whether— to continue dealing with these classical ballets as our world moves forward is a big one. When ballets choreographed hundreds of years ago have inherently irrelevant and sometimes downright upsetting elements, is it worth bothering to remake antiquated relics of the past? Why change them instead of just leaving them off stage?
Stowell feels strongly that there are good, and important, reasons why we should not lose these historic works, but also that not all re-envisionings of them are created equal. The bottom line is that they are masterpieces, regardless of the worldview of the people who made them, he points out, and the value of these ballets outweighs aspects that became problematic over time. “There is a core to these works of art that is relevant and none of it hinges on ethnicity or skin tone. You can eliminate a lot of those ancillary details and keep the germ of what the original creators made. You don’t want to lose great art just because the details no longer speak to us.”
The arguments in favor of not jettisoning ballets like Swan Lake to the basement storage room include the gifts to humanity that are Tchaikovsky’s music and Petipa and Ivanov’s choreographic structuring. “No matter what world they were creating in, Tchaikovsky is still a fantastic composer, and the structure of Swan Lake is still a genius example of dance theater,” Stowell says. “These were artists at the top of their game.” And the majority of today’s classical ballet dancers still want to perform these works, he adds, and not because being classically trained means unflagging allegiance to the mores of bygone eras. “Everyone is very interested, myself included, in innovation, new voices, telling new stories. But dancers today will still tell you that what they really want to dance— in addition to all these other things— are the classics. They are why I fell in love with the art form. You feel you are living up to a standard, to your own personal best. You’re not just being technically proficient, you’re making this vocabulary expressive, interesting, and telling a story.”
That exhilaration extends to both sides of the curtain. Audiences are part of the performance simply by being witness to the monumental experience of 65 musicians playing Tchaikovsky and an entire company of dancers coming together to put on a major piece of art, as Stowell describes the significance of such a feat. “Even an audience member who usually sees more contemporary or experimental art can still feel, when the curtain goes up on something that big, the level of excitement and accomplishment of this spectacle, the beauty, the tragedy, and not least, witnessing super human athletes. To sit together in a darkened theater and experience that is epic.”
Gavin Larsen is a former OBT principal dancer. She now teaches and writes about dance from Asheville, NC. Her memoir, Being a Ballerina: The Power and Perfection of a Dancing Life, was published in 2021.