MIAMI — “Will this bird ever land?” So said Lourdes Lopez, artistic director of Miami City Ballet, in January.
The bird she referred to is ‘Swan Lake’. Miami City Ballet has been performing a one-act play by George Balanchine for years, but in 2016 Lopez decided it was time for the company, which she has been leading since 2012, to take on the full-length ballet, with all the bells and whistles.
But she would have to wait six years — and endure a pandemic — before getting her “swan” onstage. The production, the largest and most expensive in Miami City Ballet history, will eventually premiere at the Arsht Center here on February 11.
In search of the right production, Lopez had looked at versions performed all over the world, each with a different choreographer’s taste. One evening she clicked on a YouTube video of a production that had recently premiered in Zurich.
“At one point I remember the prince reaching out and glancing at Odette’s tutu, and I just started crying,” she said during a break between rehearsals at the company’s Miami Beach studios in November. Odette, the heroine of the ballet, is a woman turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. “This wasn’t about a bird,” Lopez said, “it was about a woman and the tragedy of the human experience.”
The choreographer was Alexei Ratmansky, but his sources were ballet notations written down in St. Petersburg in 1895 just ten years after the St. Petersburg premiere of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s “Swan Lake”. Those notations were like a bridge to the ballet’s origins before it was altered by generations of choreographers and dancers.
Not long after watching that video, Lopez approached Ratmansky, who agreed to perform the ballet for her in Miami. A premiere was planned for 2019, but it had to be postponed because the financing was not in place.
The opening was rescheduled for 2021 – but Covid got in the way. This week’s premiere also felt like a gamble at times. During the winter holidays, the Omicron variant quickly spread and several dancers tested positive for the virus. The company’s return to the studio had to be postponed and the rehearsal schedule adjusted to accommodate dancers in different phases of quarantine. For weeks, the company is tested frequently, sometimes even daily, and the rehearsals are masked.
“It’s like the ballet looks at me and says, ‘How badly do you really want me?'” Lopez said when we spoke in January.
The answer, it seems, is, very, very much. Founded in 1985 by former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella and philanthropist Toby Ansin, Miami City Ballet is not known for its storytelling ballets, especially those created in the 1800s. It has previously specialized in works by Balanchine (the founder of the New York City Ballet), combined with ballets, mostly abstract, by Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Justin Peck and others.
Which isn’t to say this is the first time these dancers have put a 19th-century classic to the test. The company has danced “Giselle” and “Don Quixote”, although they are not staples of the repertoire. (Balanchine’s 1951 one-act play, “Swan,” which focuses on the lakeside ballet acts, downplays the story.)
“It really is the best ballet, bar none,” Lopez said as to why she wanted to record a full version. “I think it will really inform the dancers and help them grow. It’s something they can come back to again and again.”
It is a piece for a company of 54 dancers. To fill its ranks, the company has had to expand the force with more than a dozen senior students from the school. Fifty-seven dancers are involved in each show.
Originally produced by the Zurich Ballet and La Scala, with an atmospheric set and up-to-date tutus by Jérôme Kaplan, this “Swan Lake” is also a throwback to the dance style of an earlier era. Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana Ratmansky, who assists him, studied a form of dance notation developed in the late 1800s to get a sense of how it was performed in the years close to the ballet’s premiere.
They found many discrepancies between the “Swan Lakes” being performed today – versions are increasing – and what has been written. The notations, recorded in 1905, revealed faster tempos, more mime, different patterns for the corps de ballet, forgotten poses. Perhaps most surprising to contemporary audiences, the famous lakeside pas de deux for the heroine, Odette, and her lover, Prince Siegfried, features a third entrant, Siegfried’s best friend Benno.
In this earlier version of the ballet, Benno assists in partnering at key moments. He lifts Odette away from Siegfried, giving the impression that she is floating through the air, and acts as a pedestal for her to step on, so that she appears to be floating before Siegfried’s eyes. These moments add a touch of anti-gravity magic to the scene.
Benno was present in the pas de deux in some productions in Russia until the late 1950s and in Europe and the United States until the early 1960s, when the arrival of stars like Nureyev made his presence obsolete. “They wanted to focus on Siegfried,” Russian historian Sergey Konaev said in an email. “Soviet ballet didn’t like supporting roles.”
“It’s almost like he’s not there,” Nathalia Arja, one of the dancers who would play the part of Odette, said of Siegfried in a Zoom call after a rehearsal. “His friend is there to help him capture this magical creature,” added Renan Cerdeiro, who will play Siegfried in Arja’s Odette.
Arja and Cerdeiro, who will be in the opening cast (if all goes according to plan), have been sharing the stage for years, studying at the same school in Brazil, the Escola de Dança Alice Arja in Rio de Janeiro, run by her mother. “Renan was my first partner,” Arja said.
The two performed Balanchine’s one-act play “Swan Lake” and the so-called “Black Swan Pas de Deux” as a standalone piece. But this feels different. “It brings back so much more of the story,” Arja said. “You tell the story every moment. An arabesque is never just an arabesque.”
Much of that drama is conveyed through mime, a system of codified gestures that mimic words. Plot points can be explained with greater clarity than they could by abstract motion. But mime is considered old-fashioned and is often cut from the old ballets. Ratmansky feels it adds to the texture of the story.
“I love that the characters talk to each other and you can see who is saying what,” he said.
This was illustrated during a rehearsal last November at the company’s headquarters. As the final act at the lake began, the dancer Odette rehearsing, Katia Carranza — there are four casts — staggered on. Pointing to where she was coming from, she “told” her fellow swan girls that the man she loved (she pressed her hands to her heart) had thrown her aside (she threw her arms as if throwing something in the trash) and that here, in this place, she would die (she held her arms down until her wrists were crossed in front of her).
When the prince accompanied her, her arms and neck hung limp, as if she had lost the will to live. This soft, less formal way of holding the body can be seen in historical photographs, Ratmansky said, as well as in early films by the great British ballerina Margot Fonteyn: “No tension, no tendons sticking out in the neck, and the arms are human. and soft.”
This softness is the opposite of the fresh, tight dynamics of Balanchine, which the dancers are so used to. “They need to learn to sing more with their bodies,” Ratmansky said. “It’s about a supple back, a soft neck. They have to sing when they are on pointe, with their backs, spines and hands.”
It was not an easy process for the dancers to get there. “It’s an endless reaching,” Arja said of this mode of movement, which she attributes both to Ratmansky and to the intentions of Petipa and Ivanov. “The combination of technology with freedom, clear and powerful at the same time, that is very Ratmansky.”
He encourages this quality during rehearsal with a running commentary, sculpting the movement moment by moment: “Hold on, resist a little here.” “Pull yourself up and hold the epaulement.” “Relax your upper body.” “Move with more lightness.”
Meanwhile, Tatiana Ratmansky has turned her attention to the corps de ballet and instigated a more elaborate, lyrical style. “We’ve worked a lot to be softer,” she said after a rehearsal. “I teach them to rely more on their bodies, to have their hips go one way and their torso go the other way, with contrapposto,” a term from the fine arts that describes the distribution of weight over the body, and resulting curves.
As Ratmansky put it to the dancers at the end of a long, sweaty rehearsal, “’Swan Lake’ is like Everest. It takes a collective effort to reach the top.”
In all these endeavors, Miami City Ballet dancers bring their distinctive energy and powerful musical drive. The large ensembles, performed in a lively clip, reveal syncopated rhythms that are often lost in productions of other companies. There are no static moments.
But the challenges are real. “Rehearsing with a mask is difficult,” Arja said, “because you can only see your partner’s eyes, and you can’t have that full hug.” And there’s that worry, every day, that a test comes back positive, leaving them home for several days, losing precious prep time, or even canceling a performance.
Still, two weeks before the premiere, Arja felt more confident. “With Ratmansky’s help, and just by practicing it over and over, I’ve discovered so many layers of emotion in my character,” she said. “It’s something I had to go through for myself. And I know it won’t all come out on opening night. It will be a journey of discovery.”
A few weeks before the premiere, there was a sense that the bird would finally land. “You cannot understand what it means to bring this incredible masterpiece to South Florida,” Lopez said. “This is what we do – we come to the occasion.”