A row of chairs lines the front of the studio, marking what will soon be the territory of Boston Ballet’s artistic staff. Prop tables and makeshift dressing rooms fill the halls where tutus hang sideways and majestic gowns drape to the floor. Adrenaline builds as dancers move in every direction, preparing for a costume run-through of Mikko Nissinen’s new production of “Swan Lake.” The world premiere of this tragic love story opens Thursday, Oct. 30 at the Boston Opera House and goes through Nov. 16.
Once rehearsal begins, the bustle of activity concentrates in the center of the studio. Friends of Prince Siegfried greet one another and proceed into a waltz. Principal dancer Ashley Ellis warms up quietly on the side with a tranquility that reflects the character she will become in the upcoming scene.
She smiles at a dancer across the room, then her thoughts seem to internalize. With the mirror as her guide, she reviews steps that appear second nature to her. She removes her black sweatshirt, and her arms extend to either side, emulating the fluidity of a swan fluttering its wings. While her movements appear fragile, the muscles engaging through her back reveal the strength needed for the meticulous choreography.
The second act begins and Tchaikovsky’s lively composition quickly turns romantic. Sabi Varga, as Rothbart, enters the stage with a powerful manège when Eris Nezha, as Prince Siegfried, arrives to hunt with his new crossbow. Along the sides of the studio, the corps de ballet women replace their waltz skirts with white tutus, transforming into a flock of swans. Standing among them is Ellis, her hands intertwined as she anticipates her entrance.
The minute that Siegfried raises his bow, all eyes turn to Ellis, or Odette to be more accurate. Even in a crisp white studio, with no scenery and no stage lights shining down on her, Ellis seems to step into another world—and she takes the audience with her.
In describing her character, she says, “I get to be frantic, scared, honest, in love, and heartbroken,” a variety of feelings that she mixes seamlessly when looking at her beloved.
Nevertheless, this is only a portion of the emotional rollercoaster that Ellis experiences by the end of each performance. One challenge of undertaking the principal role in “Swan Lake” is the duality of the character.
This particular rehearsal did not cover the ballroom scene in which the Black Swan makes her appearance and performs the famous 32 fouettés, but Ellis easily describes the transformation. “In the middle of it all,” she says, “I flip the switch and become Odile, who is everything that Odette is not. I am evil, seductive and deceitful.”
To complement Odile’s personality, Ellis changes into a black tutu embellished with more than 4,000 jewels, a creation by Robert Perdziola.
“It needed to say period but it also needed flare and heart. And the reason for that is that I feel it to be a fairy tale and it should resonate from a point of emotion,” he says. The award-winning designer is collaborating with the ballet for the second time after his revamp of “The Nutcracker” in 2012 received high acclaim.
With the heart-wrenching drama this classic ballet offers, it’s no wonder Hollywood made it the central story line of a psychological thriller in 2010. “Black Swan,” says Ellis, “showed all of the dramatic stereotypes that go along with a career as a ballet dancer and put those into one scenario.”
The extent to which “Black Swan” realistically portrays the art form is a question that professional ballet dancers may tire of hearing, but Ellis still hopes the film sparked an interest in the public.
“It can be intimidating to do things you are unfamiliar with,” she admits. “Media, like the movie ‘Black Swan,’ helps to bridge this gap between comfort and the unknown. In turn,” she adds, “people may feel less intimidated to venture into the theater to see what it’s all about.”
Lawrence Elizabeth Knox is a journalism major in Boston University’s College of Communication. Prior to attending college, she was a professional ballet dancer with Tulsa Ballet. She may be contacted at email@example.com.