Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Black and White: Swan Lake’ speaks to the heart and mind
By Adrienne Warber
“Swan Lake” means so many things to different people. It is one of the classic ballets, like “The Nutcracker” that many people see. The swan is one of the iconic images of a ballerina. It is one of those ballets that speaks to the heart of the audience. Grand Rapids Ballet’s contemporary “Black and White: Swan Lake” not only speaks to heart, it shows the many possible stories and new artistic expressions are possible within the classic ballet.
The Beginning of a New Swan Lake Tale
Choreographer Mario Radacovsky, the Artistic Director of National Theatre Brno in the Czech Republic, is an internationally sought after voice in the dance world because of his unique inventive choreography. Radacovsky’s choreography is edgy, uses every part of the body to convey emotion and storytelling. It is no surprise that his “Black and White: Swan Lake” tells a story every bit as much as it expresses the complexity of human emotions.
Grand Rapids Ballet has worked with Radacovsky on projects for the contemporary movement series, “Movemedia” and the full-length ballet, “Beethoven.” The idea for “Black and White: Swan Lake” grew out of a creative exercise for “Movemedia.” Radacovsky was working with Grand Rapids Ballet dancers on a movement exercise that was inspired by “Swan Lake.” Radacovsky and Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director Patricia Barker and Creative Director Michael Auer realized that this concept had a lot of potential. It grew from a “Movemedia” piece into a full-length ballet for Grand Rapids Ballet. The world premiere of “Black and White: Swan Lake” in 2012 met critical acclaim and many sold-out performances.
Mario Radacovsky’s Unique Choreography
Mario Radacovsky developed “Black and White: Swan Lake,” when he was fighting cancer and in many ways his choreography reflects the passion of a life and death struggle. He also saw a similarity in human relationships and wild swan interactions.
Radacovsky talks about working on the ballet, “My journey to create Black & White Swan Lake began years ago when I was in the hospital battling cancer. The window in my room overlooked a lake where swans gathered. I instantly thought about the freedom and perfection they represented… but also how aggressive and dangerous they can be. Nothing in life is black or white. There are so many colors in between, and not just in what we see, but how we feel. How can we trust what we see? Is it reality or just a dream… what is real and what is not? I hope you, the audience, can see past the colors and the visual elements to discover what you feel and not just simply see. I hope you will go home talking about it and bring to light you own feelings and emotions, perhaps provoked by what you saw on stage. I am so glad to have had the chance to work with the dancers and Patricia once again. To see each dancer bring their own personality and character to each role…it has been fantastic. This has been a remarkable journey for me and I am very proud of their work. I hope you enjoy the performance.”
Radacovsky’s choreography uses all parts of the body in the movement. The straight lines of ballet are used along with loose fluid contemporary movements. Dancers leap, fall to the ground, roll their heads, flip their hair, and use sharp arm and leg movements that extend with the entire body. There is always a feeling that each movement leads fluidly to the next one. The movements have texture and personality to convey moods and story plot.
A Memorable Performance
Dancers Nicholas Schultz and Laura McQueen Schultz, who danced the world premiere of “Black and White: Swan Lake” in 2012, staged this version of the ballet both here in Grand Rapids and for the Czech National Ballet. This ballet used a minimalistic set with the use of projections, lighting and backdrops to convey the scenes. The set and lighting by Marek Holly and projections by Grand Rapids Ballet’s Creative Director Michael Auer, and costumes by Artistic Director Patricia Barker, worked beautifully with the dancing. Dancers incorporated the curtain, lit frame and mirrored backdrops in their dancing. Staging is very important in a minimalistic set because the focus will be more on the dancing to create scenes and moods, without the distractions of an ornate set or props. The dance numbers incorporated many partnering and corps de ballet sequences, and the Schultzes’ staging presented these numbers well.
The scenes between Siegfried and Von Rothbart, danced by Nicholas Schultz (Siegfried) and Matt Wenckowski (Von Rothbart) on opening night, were every bit as haunting and memorable as the sequences with Siegfried and the White and Black Swans. The complex conflict between Siegfried and Von Rothbart in all its rage and sadness were conveyed in the sequences. Their relationship could be viewed as the classic Swan Lake conflict between the two characters over the swans, or as even as an internal struggle. Sometimes their mirrored movements appeared like two sides (good and bad) of the same person. To know that Radacovsky first created this ballet during his battle with cancer adds another dimension to the way the audience views the Siegfried and Von Rothbart relationship, perhaps Von Rothbart symbolizes illness that Siegfried struggles to defeat. They do spar, knock each other out and at times carry each other like the ups and downs of dealing with a serious health condition. In fact, a scene involving Von Rothbart and Siegfried that may bring a tear to your eyes. Schultz and Wenckowski gave moving performances in their roles.
Schultz partnered well with both Dawnell Dryja (Black Swan) and Laura McQueen Schultz (White Swan.) Siegfried’s complicated and painful relationship with the Black Swan is evident in the sensuality and flirtatious movements. Dryja danced the part of the Black Swan beautifully on opening night, and she showed a great range of emotion to convey the complexity of the relationship between the Black Swan and Siegfried. McQueen Schultz danced the White Swan role with strong technique and artistry. The scenes between Siegfried and McQueen Schultz’s White Swan were tender and romantic.
The corps de ballet gave strong performances in the swan scenes. You could see the natural movements of wild swans in how each swan dancer moved across the stage, whether she was on the floor, executing a leap or dancing with her arms. In fact, the swan sequences captured how Radacovsky incorporated the entire body in a dance number. For example, a swan dancer lays on her back, legs curled into her body like swan wings, one arm lengthened straight like a swan neck, and her hand curved like a swan head to capture the look of a swimming swan on a lake. This pose also created the perfect shadow of a swan against the backdrop with the lighting.
There was great artistry in all aspects of the production from the dancing and choreography to the staging and set. “Black and White: Swan Lake” may be one of Grand Rapids Ballet’s best productions of the season. It will be exciting to see what they do next in “Movemedia: World Premieres” in March.