When I was eight, my mother enrolled me in a tap dancing class. I had seen the 1952 hit musical movie “Singing in The Rain.” I wanted to be like the actor and dancer Donald O’Connor.
A child’s discovery
One night, my mother came home and found me walking on the piano. She needed to redirect the language I wanted to speak. Later, I saw traveling ballet companies, took lessons, and got to perform onstage. That is all to say, I’ve seen my share of ballet, including many performances of the beloved ballet “Swan Lake” — from Carol Burnett’s hilarious television version to performances by professional ballet companies.
I’m also a parent. From those two perspectives – dance lover and dad – I can say, with little doubt, that Swan Lake, performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), will be a memorable experience for your prince or princess, especially kids aged 8 and up.
Swan Lake performances run through February 11 at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall in Seattle.
Don’t worry about why she’s a swan
I saw the opening night production with dancers Leta Biasucci (Princess Odette/Odile) and Lucien Postlewaite (Prince Siegfried) in the lead roles. Given the complexity of the production, other dancers perform the roles on different nights.
Don’t worry too much about explaining the plot about a lady who changes into a swan. It’s a part-time thing caused by an evil sorcerer. Being a swan is Odette’s day job. She’s left with the evening hours to find true love and break the spell that keeps her a swan by day. When she sees Seigfried in the woods, she feels confident he will be the one to return her permanently to her human form. Swan Lake moves back and forth between the real world during the daytime and the world of fantasy and magic at night.
Of course, there is a grand ball, and what a ball it is. This production captures the splendor and opulence of ballet at its grandest. The tree branches and walls create a picture book feel.
All big parties should have a crasher, and this one has the best. And, boy, does he know how to wave a cape! It is the evil Baron Von Rothbart who has brought his daughter Odile, who, you guessed it, looks just like Odette. She wears a black outfit. Of course, while dancing with Odile, a vision of Odette appears out the window. Seigfried has been tricked. Off he goes, back to the lake to find the real Odette. Or is Odile really Odette?
One of the most challenging steps for a ballet dancer is a Fouetté. It’s a turn on one toe, whipping the other leg around her body. It takes strength and perfect balance. The Black Swan, Odile, is supposed to do 32 fouettés. For fun and to keep kids engaged, ask kids to count. Does Odile do them all?
There are two intermissions in the PNB production, which are great times to recap and explore how this story might end. I chatted with two little girls during intermission.
The first said she had never been to the ballet but loved it. Her dad said she was taking tap lessons and learning the cha-cha. The second girl told me she was there to root for her mother, who was dancing the role of the queen. I asked her if she knew the pantomime sign the queen used to tell the prince that he needed to get married.
Sure enough, she pointed to her ring finger and showed me the gesture. I saw a lot of young people at this performance. Little girls dressed to the nines. Some wore the tiaras they had talked parents into buying in the gift shop for $25.
Beautiful flow and setting
A group of swans is called a bevy. I looked it up. The bevy at the lake PNB created knows how to put on a show. Feathers fly and arms are wings. I loved the four ballerinas who danced together and seemed like a single unit. They made me believe that humans can become swans.
The setting, thanks to Ming Cho Lee, is both simple and elegant. Kudos to the late Randall Chiarelli, whose lighting design created the water the dancers move through.
The ending may feel sad when Odette and Seigfried must say farewell to each other. Other productions have done it differently, but I think the music tells us it must be so.
Advice for bringing a child to a ballet
Make your trip to PNB’s “Swan Lake” an experience with a bit of preparation. Most kids aged 8 and older can engage in the story during the performance if they know what is happening. Younger ones may find it more difficult, although I saw a 4-year-old who seemed enthralled. Here are some ways to connect kids:
- Read about Swan Lake before you go. Check out the New York City Ballet’s excellent picture book “Swan Lake” with illustrations by Valeria Docampo.
- Dress up. Going to the ballet calls for dressing. Let your child get into the glamor. Let them choose their outfit. Consider feathers and tiaras.
- Read the story synopsis in the program to your younger child and talk about it before the show. Remind them that the story will play out with no words, so they must look for it.
- Make a trip to the restroom before the curtain goes up. There’s nothing more annoying than having to make that trip mid-performance – to you and other viewers.
- Get to the performance hall a bit early. It will give you time to settle in and talk about expectations. During the ballet, it is a time for watching, not talking.
- I promise you will answer questions during intermission, not during the performance. Be good on your promise.
- Use the kids’ cushions McCall Hall offers. It makes it far easier for kids to see the stage.
- Ask questions. Part of the fun is not knowing exactly how it will end. The story of this ballet is simple enough to explain who is who and what will happen during the next act. Ask questions during intermissions: “How do you think it will end?” “Why do you think that guy is so mean?” “Do you like Odette better as a human or a swan?” “What would it be like to be a swan?”
Now listen to their thoughts
When the show is over, with all color and grandeur, bring your kids back to earth. Head for the cocoa and cookies. That is the time for the critique/child to provide their review and you to listen.
This is where you will learn the value of what the ticket brought for you both. This is an experience that will imprint why we need art and beauty. Enjoy.