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Prince Charmings: The Men of Milwaukee Ballet in “Swan Lake”

George Balanchine said, “Ballet is woman,” while choreographer Maurice Béjart said, “Ballet is man.”  We’re pretty good at being equal opportunity employers here. The Company is comprised of 12 men and 12 women, and we do a good job of featuring as many pirates, vampires and princes as we do dolls and damsels-in-distress. It is only fitting, perhaps, that we end our season with the girl-powered ballet, “Swan Lake,” after opening our season with the male-driven “La Bohéme.” Swan Lake brings to mind hordes of girls in white tutus and feathered headpieces and twirly ballerinas en pointe; none of that is too surprising. Michael Pink’s version won’t fly too far from this nest.

There are versions in which the boys do take center stage. If you’ve seen the film “Billy Elliot,” perhaps you recall grown-up Billy soaring through the air at the end of the movie – his father and brother watching with baited breath. He is actually supposed to be one of the fierce male swans in Matthew Bourne’s version of Swan Lake – an adaptation with a no-girls-in-tutus-allowed rule. Bourne’s psychological twist of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s most wellknown work, pits a young prince stuck between trying to do what he’s supposed to and yearning to fly free, literally, and join a flock of muscular, masculine swans. It is quite compelling and worth a visit to YouTube to see the costumes alone. In alabaster white body make-up, Caesar cut coiffes with pointed black stripes down the middle, the men in this corps de ballet have shaggy white knickers on and nothing else. Their swan arms don’t undulate like wings, rather point and swoop as they move in formation. While you’re surfing the web for swans, you might as well take a peek at the Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s hilarious take on Anna Pavlova’s famous solo, “The Dying Swan.” My favorite is Maya Thickenthaya’s version. If you are unfamiliar with the Trocks, I won’t spoil the surprise.  Just watch it.

Now, in all seriousness, Swan Lake is a serious ballet and we must be serious when we talk about it.  Well, that Liftwas my intent.  The goal for this week’s blog: what is the male perspective of Swan Lake? I went into the studio yesterday, armed with intellectual questions about what it takes to be a proper prince, about perfecting the variation in Act II, etc.  But come on, who am I kidding – ask a bunch of dudes about Swan Lake and well, here you go…

Director of Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, Rolando Yanes sort of rolled his eyes and laughed when I asked him to share a story of his experience dancing in Swan Lake. He said the “millones de veces” (millions of times) he’d danced the ballet kind of blur together – he did recall fondly taking prop flowers with wires on them and poking the ladies in their hind feathers to see if they would break character.  He assures me he wasn’t the only one doing it. 

I thought I might have more luck with Douglas McCubbin, retired dancer and the Company's stage manager.

“I have a good one. I was on tour in New Zealand and we had been on tour for a long stretch. One night I’m dancing Siegfried and I actually fell asleep on the throne, right before the Black Swan pas de deux!  The Queen sort of elbowed me and said, ‘Doug!  Wake up!  You have to go dance!’” 

So did he? “Yeah, of course. It was easy. I just had a power nap!”

He also recalled his favorite Swan Lake mishap in another performance. Imagine if you will, rows of swans coming downstage in lines.  The first one jumped and fell, but flanked by 15 more swans, the rest just jumped over her and kept going. Poor trampled thing.

In the midst of my laughter, Justin Genna and Timothy O’Donnell, both playing the role of Rothbart, came over to see what the hubbub was about. I asked them to tell me their thoughts about dancing the role. Tim took a serious pause and said, “Von Rothbart is hard-core on the outside,” and as if timed, Justin jumped in, wearing Rothbart’s cape and opened it up to reveal the purple interior and said, “and a big softie on the inside!” joking, of course, about the color. He proceeded to whip the cape around with flair and panache and then in deadpan, “This was the real pre-requisite; how well can you maneuver a cape?”

When asked about what it took to be a superior prince, David Hovhannisyan said, “You have to be really good at catching birds!” and Ryan Martin joked that he had put glass in everyone else’s shoes – a long-rumored legend about ballet auditions (certainly not true here, but funny in the context of this conversation).

These boys! Certainly Ballet Master, Denis Malinkine and Michael Pink would have some insight into the ballet. AlexandreMichael recalled a performance in a dilapidated theatre with no heat where all the dancers protested continuing after Act I because it was so cold. The curtain came down and the girl playing Odile was so upset she did all 32 fouettés centerstage behind the curtain.  “The rest of us left and went straight to the pub.” 

Denis instantly burst into laughter and nearly jumped for joy to tell me his fondest memory. He was in a production where some nights he was Prince Siegfried and the next the Spanish dancer, both with the same partner – Odette/Odile and Spanish. One night, “in a ridiculous hat,” he was dancing Spanish, and he and his partner were watching the beginning of the Black Swan pas de deux. To everyone’s horror, the Prince dropped Odile on her head. Instead of closing the curtain, this dancer dragged the poor bird offstage by the leg. Denis looked up – the curtain was not coming down.  Like the professional he is, he went center stage and did some gesturing and ballet mime to try and use up some of the music as he prayed the curtain would come down. Instead, his partner took this as an invitation to dance. She stepped forward and before he knew what was happening, he threw off his awful hat and the Spanish couple completed the Black Swan pas de deux - variation, coda and finale. 

“I had to walk up to the Queen and somehow mime, ‘Mother, why don’t you recognize me!?’” He could barely get the words out laughing about how confused the audience was.  “They thought this was some new contemporary version of Swan Lake!”

Ah, the boys of Milwaukee Ballet. Such candor and honesty. Such revealing stories about their craft. While I assure you, we will not be doing the comedic version of Swan Lake (although, for another laugh, search YouTube for Rudolf Nureyev and Miss Piggy in their version of “Swine Lake”), there are plenty of behind-the-scenes bloopers at any given moment. So while I’m not sure which side I would take in the “Ballet is man,”/ “Ballet is woman” debate, I can say this. Ballet is funny.

Alyson Chavez
Director of Community Outreach