Portland is not a city of traditionalists, which puts classically oriented companies like Oregon Ballet Theatre in a weird position. Even though they're not beholden to purists and their audience's taste runs toward the contemporary, most people still want their Swan Lake to seem familiar.
With its production of Swan Lake, OBT hopes to satisfy both contemporary and traditional inclinations by changing up the narrative of the classic ballet. It's still about Prince Siegfried (Peter Franc) who falls in love with Odette (Xuan Cheng), a women under a spell that turns her into a swan during the day. But in an attempt to create a more realistic and relatable story, OBT cut out the part of the evil sorcerer, von Rothbart, and focused the plot around Siegfried instead of Odette.
However, much of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov's choreography remains, and it certainly has the appearance of a traditional ballet: The big budget sets include an elaborate great hall and a forest at dusk. The multitude costumes of include medieval dresses with skirts that balloon when the dancers twirl, and the iconic stiff white tutus worn by the swans.
But the production's strongest moments are when the company does depart from the original choreography. At the ball, where Siegfried must find someone to marry, an ensemble character that would normally be a jester becomes the prince's wingman. The ball's foreign visitors provide an opportunity for an array of traditional Russian- and Spanish-inspired costumes, and some of the production's most virtuosic choreography: When an imposter of Odette shows up, she and Siegfried take turns leaping around the stage and performing endless twirls.
The scene provides an opportunity for humor, too. Two sisters (Emily Parker and Makino Hildestad) trying to win the prince's attention fight amongst each other and fall over, while their helicopter mom tries to instruct them from the background. Every time a woman tries to introduce herself, the uninterested and somewhat rude Siegfried gestures to his wingman in exasperation. It gives Siegfried a trait uncommon in the pristine realm of emotions traditionally displayed in ballets: angst.
One kind of wishes that emotional range would come through in the scenes with Odette and Siegfried, though. When they first meet near the lake—the ballet's most iconic scene—the choreography is practically untouched. Featuring slow, impeccable dips, the technical mastery of Odette's performance is the focus. It is supremely beautiful, but it's so delicate, it's hard to find the burgeoning love between the prince and the Swan Queen relatable. Love is typically depicted in ballets as Petrarchan and sterile, which is something OBT's Swan Lake doesn't really challenge.
Considering how well the changes to other parts of the ballet go over, it feels like a missed opportunity. The decision to modify a staple of the classical canon is admirable, but the company's ambitions don't seem fully realized. OBT's adjustments succeed in giving Siegfried modern appeal, but the company doesn't seem up for the risk of altering the ballet in a way that would require really a questioning convention.
SEE IT: Swan Lake plays at Keller Audiorium, 222 SW Clay St., obt.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday and 2 pm Saturday, through Feb. 25. $29-$146.