SAN DIEGO — Every budding ballerina dreams of dancing the role of Odette in "Swan Lake," Tchaikovsky's first ballet and the crowning achievement of high Romanticism in classical dance.
This beautiful ballet blanc has been danced by the leading ballerinas in the world ever since 1894, when a restaging of Act II took the dance world by storm during a Tchaikovsky memorial program in what was then St. Petersburg, Russia.
Because "Swan Lake" exceeds any other ballet in its emotional and technical demands on the ballerina, the role of Odette is usually the domain of dancers with star status. Even small regional troupes tend to import an accomplished ballerina to interpret the mournful flutterings of the spellbound swan maiden.
Linda Bennett, a 17-year-old dancer with the American Ballet Ensemble, is one of the exceptions. She has been getting a crack at the coveted role on both sides of the border this month--first in Tijuana last Sunday at the Centro Cultural, and this weekend at 8 tonight and at 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday at San Diego City College Theatre.
Her partner in the second act of "Swan Lake" is another home-grown dancer, Gustavo Unguez, as Prince Siegfried.
The production is staged by the American Ballet Ensemble's artistic director, Lynda Yourth, a former New York City Ballet principal who danced George Balanchine's version of the classic with the celebrated company.
"I did it when I was about her age with Andre Eglevsky. A few of us (including the great Maria Tallchief) were picked to apprentice. But Balanchine didn't like 'Swan Lake'--at least it was a standing joke that he didn't like it--and he always said he didn't," Yourth said.
Although Yourth lists Balanchine--along with Lev Ivanov--in the choreographic credits, can we expect to see Balanchine's version of the ballet in Yourth's staging of "Swan Lake?"
"Nope, sorry," Yourth said emphatically. "It's actually based on the more traditional version--more like what I saw at the Kirov and the Bolshoi. Balanchine did some beautiful things, but I took the more traditional version."
Unlike Balanchine's "Swan Lake," or the Royal Ballet's staging of the Russian classic, Yourth's choreography for the finale is slow and somber.
"I took out the coda at the end of the pas de deux . It was very fast and showy," she said. "Mine is much purer--and it ends as slowly as it starts. I thought (a slow ending) was more in character."
Despite her youthful principals, Yourth insisted she made no concessions in the choreography. "My dancers are really very well-trained, all-around dancers now. That's why I didn't touch 'Swan Lake' until last year. I didn't want to do it until they were ready," she said.
"For American dancers trained in neoclassicism, 'Swan Lake' is very hard. The movements are smaller and neater--and there's more detail. It's tough as anything technically. But you can't (tamper with) a classic. 'Swan Lake' is part of our dance heritage."
For Linda Bennett, joining the legendary ranks of Odettes is more than a little overwhelming.
"It's scary," she said. "I like the classics. I guess all young dancers do. But knowing that so many great dancers have done ('Swan Lake') before still scares me."
Bennett, who began training when she was 5, danced the Arabian divertissement in the American Ballet Ensemble's "Nutcracker" in December, revealing a sultry style and performing brio that belied her young years and bashful offstage demeanor. But it was her "fluidity and lyrical qualities" that made Yourth single Bennett out for "Swan Lake."
"You also need the ability to portray the style of the ballet. It's not a classroom exercise. All the rules are broken in this ballet. Instead of the arms here," Yourth explained, demonstrating the point with classically curved port de bras, "they're here," in back of the body, to suggest the swan's wings.
"It's easier to bring in outsiders," Yourth acknowledged, "but the dancers need that exposure. They can't just train for the corps."
Yourth has programmed three other works for the concerts.
Unguez has choreographed a "very neoclassic" ensemble work to a Stravinsky score. His "Stravinsky Miniatures" features several company dancers in solo and groups during its eight fleeting movements.
Mieczyslaw Morawski has contributed "Straussiana," a major ensemble work set to the music of Strauss. And Yourth's "Grand Pas de Deux," danced by Eva Nichols and Unguez, is tucked into the middle of the program.
The 20 dancers of the American Ballet Ensemble are still not ready to call themselves professionals. But under Yourth's patient guidance, they have come a long way since their first tentative steps on a concert stage.
"I don't believe in holding them back," Yourth said, "so when they're ready, I send them to Joffrey or the American Ballet School. That's why it's hard to build a company here. But I'm not giving up."