My life is currently fully immersed in Swan Lake. As I mentioned in my Review of the Year, the Russian Youth Ballet Company and Ballet School I dance with are putting on Swan Lake (based mainly off the Mariinsky version).
Just before Christmas I was rather shocked, and very pleased, to find out that I’d been cast as Rothbart – the evil owl-sorcerer antagonist. For those unfamiliar with the Swan Lake story, Rothbart is the man/owl/thing responsible for cursing the girls to life as swans. He tricks Siegfried to declaring his love to his daughter, Odile, rather than Siegfired’s soul-mate, Odile. The finale varies from production to production, but in the Mariinsky version (and hence, ours too) the lovers reunite and end up killing Rothbart. One of the great things about the Kirov/Mariinsky version is that Rothbart is fleshed out to a meaty male role, with a variation opening Act II and generally more dancing than other productions.
Initially I thought we were only doing Act II with the Youth Ballet Company, but soon realised that we’d be doing a full production. We’re not quite doing every dance, but we come pretty darn close. I think we’re skipping a couple of dances in Act I, but otherwise it’s pretty much all there. This has meant an awful lot of choreography for me to learn! There’s a good chance I’m also going to have to be the Tutor in Act I as well (my teacher was going to play him but thinks he may need to be behind the scenes instead), so have been learning that part too. This will mean a very quick change though… eek!
To give you an idea of some of my Rothbart choreography, here’s a clip of a Mariinsky Rothbart at the start of Act II and Act IV:
My biggest bit of choreography comes right at the start of Act II. As the familiar oboe theme starts, I am crouched in the centre of the stage. As the strings crescendo I suddenly look up, staring straight at the audience, before advancing with my wings held high. This leads into a variation that covers the stage in leaps and turns. I learnt the bulk of the variation relatively quickly but it has taken quite a long time to make it ‘evil’. For example, there is a sequence en manege of grand jetes, soutenous and grand sautes de basque. This isn’t the easiest of combinations (for me at least) but manageable. Except that I have to do every soutenou and saute de basque with my arms held aloft in an out-turned ‘wing’ position. First time I tried this I completely messed up my feet and nearly ended up on the floor!
My next big bit of choreography is the Spanish divertissment in Act III. I’m still going to be ‘in character’ as Rothbart but I’m also going to be dancing this with one of the girls as a duet. Preceeding this is my big entrance with Odile, gatecrashing the Queen’s ball and introducing my bewitched daughter to the Prince. It’s surprisingly tricky (at least to me) to act so arrogant and cocky – not my usual nature! The entrance also includes a little ballet mime (and more in my Act IV departure), something completely new to me. It’s amazing what can be expressed through mime (although not, it seems enough for Siegfried to ask Odile her name…) and it is almost a type of dance in its own means. If you don’t know anything about mime check out this great video from the Royal Ballet of Principals Nunez and Soares demonstrating a key scene from Act II:
The Spanish dance itself is a whole lot of fun! It’s been tricky to get out of the ‘ballet mindset’ and taken a little while to learn the whole piece (mainly as we’ve been learning it in small segments after classes) but it has finally taken shape. My main criticism from my teacher is that I need to be “bigger” – all my movements more pronounced and outstretched. Again, a little out of my comfort zone but I’m loving it.
Finally, Act IV is proving very tricky to remember. I have to do a lot of bits and pieces (not least of all, I have to die!) and it’s difficult to keep them all in order in my head. Thanks to some advice from the awesome Bennet Gartside (Royal Ballet First Soloist who played Rothbart in their recent run of Swan Lake) I’m trying to associate the movements with the music and it is slowly sinking in. I don’t think it helps that I’m rehearsing without Siegfriend and Odette (we are getting guest Principals in to dance those roles) so am often fighting with thin air. There’s also the added stress of doing some partnerwork with the guest Principal who is dancing Odette – though thankfully my teacher has taken out the arabesque press lift!
Now onto the important things: costumes! A couple of weeks ago we had a short break in the middle of our 5-hour Russian Youth Ballet Company rehearsal and our teachers pulled out a bag of tutus and unitards. Whilst the girls got excited over their (rather lovely) white tutus, I got handed my Rothbart costume. It is EPIC. We’re talking feathers, wings, a crown, the lot! Doing a run-through of Act II taught me, swiftly, how swelteringly hot the costume is, but it still looks awesome. Afterwards a photographer took some promotional shots and my teachers put up the first one up a week ago:
Then just last night we had a costume fitting and run through for Act III. I got handed my Rothbart/Spanish top – one of those weird tops for danseurs that barely come down to your belly button. It’s jet black but with plenty of fake gold and ruby-themed bling. I then got handed a bag of ballet-boots and told to find a pair that fit. I eventually found a very cool knee-high pair that fit like a glove and started to practice in them. I noticed that they had a name written on the inside of the top cuff, the previous owner. I nearly fainted when I read it: JONATHAN COPE. That’s right. The Jonathan Cope: Royal Ballet Principal, epicly awesome danseur, and partner to such stars as Darcey Bussell, Sylvie Guillem and Tamara Rojo. Turns out my teachers bought a few pairs of boots from the Royal Ballet and Cope just happened to fit. Needless to say, I’m using them as inspiration to work even harder to prepare for the show.
So what’s left to do? Well I’ve still got more choreography to learn. Rothbart has a small part in the Black Swan Pas de Deux (directing Odile on how to seduce Siegfried) that I haven’t looked at yet, and there’s a couple of minor bits in Act II where I have to look menancingly over my swans. I’m also a bit nervous about finding out what my make-up will be – Mariinsky Rothbart’s tend to have elaborately evil make-up…
I’m still working on fleshing out my character too. Rothbart may not be as deep a character as the leads, but there is still a fair amount of choice in my portrayal of him. Watching various recordings of Swan Lake (as if I needed an excuse!) there is a surprising difference in the role: some are more overtly – and flamboyantly – evil, whilst others are subtly sinister and maleficent. I think I’m going to go for the latter but we’ll have to see what my teachers want.
And to top all this off, I’m going to have to try and keep my stage fright under control. I always get nervous before dancing in front of an audience, and I’ve never had such a big role before. I tend to go off and sit by myself before performing (listening to something non-ballet related) and think I’ll try to do this – especially between the two performances (3pm and 7pm). I’ll also just try and use my nerves and adrenaline to push me that bit harder and leap that bit higher.
Whatever happens, I’ll make sure to keep you all up to date with how preparations are going. Are any of you taking part in a performance soon? How are your preparations going?
Until next time, keep on dancing!