Swan Lake vs. Black Swan: A peek into the real world of ballet

Swan Lake vs. Black Swan
A peek into the real world of ballet

We’ve been watching local dancers Andrea Blankstein and Mark Otloski rehearsing Swan Lake Act II for the upcoming Cleveland City Dance Company performance on Sun 6/12. Even weeks before the performance, they consistently evoke the tragic couple, the Swan Queen and the Prince, amidst amazing technical prowess and in between intervals of banter and laughter.

She’s been in a number of ballet companies; the large, state-supported Deutsche Oper Berlin, locally Cleveland Ballet and Ohio Ballet, and Ballet Arizona, Virginia Ballet Theatre, and State Street Ballet to name a few. His performing career includes 20-some years with Cleveland Ballet.

By the time Blankstein and Otloski started working on their Swan Lake, Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film, had come and gone from the theaters winning Natalie Portman an Academy Award for Best Actress and Aronofsky a nomination for Best Director. A critical and popular success with some excellent dancing photographed in an interesting way, Black Swan nevertheless left us with a bad aftertaste. Overdrawn characters and situations were only part of the problem. We decided to run the tropes of Black Swan by those we knew who had danced in large ballet companies in order to check the backstage movie against backstage reality.

When we first proposed this project to Blankstein, she responded in terms of her own experience. “Only about one percent of the dancers in a ballet company are perfectionists like the Natalie Portman character; most of the rest are more like Mila Kunis’ character. They drink. They party. You have to remember how young people are when they first get into a ballet company; many are 18 or 20 years old.”

So Black Swan‘s not completely inaccurate?

“Not completely inaccurate; there are a lot of normal people and there’s a lot of backstabbing.”

In other inquiries we made around the studio, dancers Gary Lenington and Damien Highfield confirmed that – especially among the women in large ballet companies – competition is so intense that it routinely spills over into back biting and character assassination, much like what’s shown in Black Swan.

It was easy to think of fairly recent local examples of bad behavior and substance abuse and, second-hand though our information was, we trotted them out. Demanding artistic directors who were oblivious to obvious substance abuse among their dancers. Dancers whose substance abuse contributed to misbehavior and major dysfunction. Both Otloski and Blankstein were loath to tell tales or cast blame.

“I’m not defending anyone,” said Otloski, “but your artistic directors and choreographers really need to focus on the vision, the artistic product, during rehearsals and classes, so it’s easy to see how they could miss personal and interpersonal problems. And if you’re a dancer, it’s tough to gear yourself up every day, to put yourself on the line physically and mentally.”

“You’re minutely scrutinized,” added Blankstein. “And it’s not often that you hear that you were good.”

“There’s always something to fix,” said Otloski putting a cap on it. “The ultimate goal is perfection, but we often forget that perfection is not attainable.”

And that was mostly what we saw watching Blankstein and Otloski’s White Swan rehearsals. Neither the neurotic perfectionism of Portman’s character nor the irresponsible behavior of Kunis’. Rather, it was a matter of artistic problem solving – fixing things so that the drama would happen onstage and not in rehearsals.

We weren’t particularly clear on what happened in Act II, so Blankstein and Otloski brought us up to speed. Act I introduces the Prince in the palace; he must marry but he’s not in love. In Act II, the act that Blankstein and Otloski are performing with CCDC, The Prince meets Odette, the Swan Queen, and the couple develop the intense relationship that makes the rest of the ballet compelling. By the end of Act II, the Prince and Odette are in love but, as often happens in real life as well as fairy tales, they can’t. In Act III, Odette’s evil twin, the Black Swan, shows up at the palace and tricks the Prince into declaring his love for her, realizing too late that she is not Odette. The Prince’s declaration for the wrong girl counts as a betrayal and really, really makes it impossible for him to marry Odette, all of which leads to the catastrophe in Act IV which usually involves the lovers jumping off a cliff, killing themselves. Fairy tale elements notwithstanding, the music supports a pervasive mood of doomed longing.

“White Swan pas de deux is the passionate one,” explained Blankstein. “Black Swan is the flashy one with all the tricks.” The problem in Act II, then, is for the dancers portraying Odette and the Prince to make an intense relationship plausible; love at first sight, building trust, and declaring their love must all be conveyed in the 2nd act through choreography and music that’s mostly over 100 years old.

“That’s a long way to bouree,” mused Blankstein as she surveyed the large studio and the actual distance she must cover. Spacing was the primary concern in one rehearsal we watched.

Otloski was concerned with the way space impacted emotion. “After the first embrace you go away and I catch you, but we’re barely moving anywhere,” he complained. They adjusted the space to render the emotion more convincing.

Having established mutual attraction, the pas de deux demonstrates developing trust in a “trust fall” in which she falls backwards and he catches her at the last second. “It’s a trust fall for real,” commented Blankstein, who must expose herself to real danger for the fall to be theatrically effective.

“Left side, left side,” chanted Otloski as Blankstein executed a series of traveling turns. The two consider themselves peers, but often provide feedback for each other. Their dialogue remained good-humored and constructive as they worked through the problems inherent to supported turns: she must adjust her attack to take full advantage of his presence; he must stay out of her way and assist without knocking her off her leg. We reflect that the physics are comparable to those of vehicles docking in outer space — at fast forward speeds.

We watched Blankstein and Otloski practice White Swan’s overhead lifts in several rehearsals. In one, they adjusted their spacing to allow her to extend her legs up between the studio’s ceiling girders; nevertheless, her point shoes clanked against the girders on several occasions. Fortunately, the stage at Tri-C East Performing Arts Center has considerably more fly space.

In another rehearsal, the overhead lifts presented a different problem that the two were unable to solve by themselves. “Let’s get Gary,” they laughed. As Otloski described it, “She’s pitched behind me to the point that I’ve got to practically drop her down to my head to get her out of it.” Blankstein laughed again, apparently unconcerned with her precarious position. Lenington watched, commented on Otloski’s grip (“the closer you can keep your wrists, the more control you’ll have”), and offered advice by way of personal experience. “For me, I have to keep a slight arch in my upper back so she stays slightly in front of me.” They did the lift again. Her trunk was more horizontal. His hands, and her center of gravity, were more in front of him. Problem solved.

No account of White Swan rehearsals would be complete without acknowledging that a ballerina must change pointe shoes about as often as Indy 500 drivers change their tires. Without a pit crew, Blankstein estimated that it takes her 90 minutes to sew on the ribbons and otherwise prepare the shoes. It’s a delicate balance. If the shoes are too new, they’re loud; too broken in, they offer inadequate support, as her left shoe was in one rehearsal. “I see it now,” said Otloski. “The shoe is collapsing around your left big toe.”

The problem in Act II, then, is for the dancers portraying Odette and the Prince to make an intense relationship plausible; love at first sight, building trust, and declaring their love must all be conveyed through choreography and music that’s mostly over 100 years old.

As she rehearsed her coda, the up-tempo Act II finale, they discussed the logistics. Does she bow after her coda? How will her entrances and exits coordinate with the other dancers on stage? Find out when Cleveland City Dance Company performs Swan Lake Act II on Sun 6/12. This performance will have a corps of eight swans.

Formerly known as Cleveland Chamber Ballet, Cleveland City Dance Company is a non-profit, pre-professional company currently residing on Shaker Square. Courtney Laves-Mearini is Artistic and Executive Director.

CCDC will perform Swan Lake Act II at 2PM on Sun 6/12/11 at Cuyahoga Community College, Eastern Campus Performing Arts Center, 4250 Richmond Rd., Highland Hills 44122. Advance tickets by phone (216-295-2222) are $15 Adults, $10 Seniors and Children under 12. Day of Show all tickets are $20 cash only. http://ClevelandCityDance.com.


From Cool Cleveland contributors Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas. Elsa and Vic are both longtime Clevelanders. Elsa is a landscape designer. She studied ballet as an avocation for 2 decades. Vic has been a dancer and dance teacher for most of his working life, performing in a number of dance companies in NYC and Cleveland. They write about dance as a way to learn more and keep in touch with the dance community. E-mail them at vicnelsaATearthlink.net.

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