The fame is justified. The role is incredibly difficult—both technically and emotionally. The Swan Queen dances throughout three of four acts of the ballet—the only one she gets off is the first, which isn’t very helpful! She must excel in the lyrical adagio passages of the White Swan—the plaintive backbends, the languorous passés and attitude balances. The she must tackle the brisk challenges in the third act Black Swan pas de deux, including its treacherous 32 fouetté turns—which come at the point when she is at her most tired.
The acting demands are no less daunting. She must convincingly act out a preposterous story: that she is the princess Odette trapped by the evil sorcerer Rothbart in half woman/half bird form who falls in love at first sight with a man who is trying to shoot her. Then she must become the villainous and seductive Odile (who is pretending to be Odette) who convinces the prince to swear his love to her instead. While she embodies Odile she must be enough like Odette so that the Prince is sold, but different enough so that the audience buys that she is a different woman entirely. Then she does another about-face and turns back into Odette, mourning her prince’s betrayal by the cold dark lake. In the finale she must not appear schizophrenic as she quickly reunites with her lover, forgives him, and pledges undying love to him which vanquishes her captor. For her efforts she is damned to an eternity of lonely swandom. To say that this is not the easiest of character studies would be an understatement. Natalie Portman rightfully won an Oscar for the task. Michael Keaton was nominated for an Oscar for a rather similar feat in Birdman.
My friend NYCB Principal Dancer Teresa Reichlen has been kind enough to answer a few questions about dancing such a demanding and storied role. Tess is one of those rare birds (sorry!) who is a perfect fit for the role. She has the height, length, and flexibility for the adagio work, as well as a sensational jump and the smooth turns requisite of the Black Swan. Next week Tess returns to the role of Odette/Odile in Peter Martins’s Swan Lake. She will be dancing with soloist Russell Janzen who is making his debut as Prince Siegfried. I’ve had a few glimpses and they are killing it in rehearsals. I cannot wait to see their shows!
Q: First of all Tess, have you ever seen Black Swan? If so, what did you think of it? (wink wink)
A: I have seen Black Swan. I think that it is a psychological thriller that happens to be based in the world of a ballet company and like any movie of that sort should not be accepted as a relevant representative of what happens in the real world.
Q: Great, moving on. Swan Lake is so iconic, but it is not exactly what the NYCB is known for. Did you dream of dancing Odette/Odile as a young dancer? Or was this something that came as a surprise in your career?
A: When I was younger I just wanted to be a dancer, I didn’t have any overarching dreams about specific companies or roles that I wanted to do. After I joined NYCB and started to do a few solos and began to realize how much I loved what I was doing there were specific things that I started to hope that I would one day get to do, including Swan Lake. I actually understudied the role for quite
Q: The ballet has a rather cockamamie plot. Do you find it difficult to connect with the story?
A: When I try to delve too deep or look at the story as a whole it doesn’t really make sense to me so instead I just concentrate on what Odette or Odile is feeling at any particular moment in the ballet. In Act II I try to portray Odette as a mysterious, ethereal and sad figure who at first is scared of the prince and then grows to trust and eventually love him. In Act III I portray Odile as a predatory temptress who is Rothbart’s pawn to use against the Prince. And Act IV is just pure devastation (lots of crying!).
Q: Is it the most difficult ballet in your rep? You do so many challenging roles, like the ballerina in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto #2. Can any Balanchine works compete with it?
A: That’s a tough comparison to make. There are definitely Balanchine ballets I do that are technically harder and feel more exhausting if comparing minutes danced; Balanchine can pack a lot of dancing into a relatively short amount of music. Swan Lake is kind of akin to having two challenging ballets in one night.
Q: How many pairs of pointe shoes will you go through per show?
A: I wear 2 pairs. You only have one opportunity in our version to change shoes since there is only 1 intermission and less than a 5 minute break between acts III and IV when you also have to change your costume and headpiece.
Q: Do you find that you have to train differently for something like Swan Lake?
A: Yes and no. In our company it is always necessary to have your technique at its highest level during season so in that way I feel that I approach our basic daily class the same way. The rehearsal process is different in that the time needed to prepare the sheer volume of dancing and to build up the stamina to dance for three acts in one night is much longer.
Q: What is the most challenging part of the ballet for you?
A: Surprisingly I find the long break during intermission and the beginning of Act III before the Black Swan pas de deux to be the hardest part of the show. The break is about an hour long and my body starts to cramp up and get stiff in that amount of time. It’s a challenge to stay warm and loose without expending any extra energy because you still have half of the ballet ahead of you.
Q: Can you ever relax and have fun in it? What is the easiest aspect of it for you?
A:I don’t know if relax would be the correct word to describe the feeling but once you reach Act IV there a sense of relief in that all of the technical feats are behind you and you feel very accomplished and that while you are exhausted, the end is in sight. Also there is a lot of hugging in Act IV which is fun!
Q: You have built up a rapport with Russell over the past two years, how has it been to work with him on Swan Lake?
A: It has been great! We had been dancing together quite a bit two years ago when he first started getting some big roles such as Diamonds, Davidsbundlertanze and Barber Violin Concerto and I felt that we really clicked in the studio. He is an extraordinarily hard worker and puts so much thought into each of his roles. Peter Martins took notice of how well he was doing and decided to spread the wealth among the other principal women because I have barely danced with him since! I have done three runs of Swan Lake with the same partner, Tyler Angle and we had built up such a trusting relationship in the ballet that I was sad to have to switch partners but Russell is the first person I would choose as a replacement.
Q: The ballet is so physical and so long, what do you eat before, during, after?
A: I usually eat some pasta the night before the show to carbo load. The day of the show I will have my normal breakfast of oatmeal and then an early afternoon snack like a banana so that I can try to push lunch, which will probably be a sandwich of some sort (contents of which TBD, whatever I’m craving) to mid to late afternoon. I will have snacks like trail mix in my dressing room to eat before or mid- show if I get hungry. I don’t like having much food in my stomach when I’m dancing but I don’t want to be hungry either so it’s a fine line and I snack as necessary. Afterwards I am usually craving meat so I tend to have a steak or hamburger, fries and a beer!
Q: How do you pace yourself in it? Do you have to conserve energy in the beginning to make it to the end? It’s so anti-Balanchine to hold back energy, but in this case it may be necessary!
A: I try to just take it one act at a time. I actually don’t really try to hold back. Luckily the demands of the dancing between the acts is varied. Act II is mostly adagio and controlled balances while Act III is more virtuosic and fast paced. Act IV is more about the acting.
Q: Why do you think that Swan Lake endures the way it does?
A: I think that a huge part of that is the music. I cry just listening to the Act IV music.
Q: How badly do your toes hurt by the end of the night?!
A: Pretty bad. I usually don’t sleep well the night of a show, while I’m completely exhausted my whole body fells inflamed and my feet and toes are usually throbbing.
*Tess, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions!! New Yorkers can catch Tess’s Swan Queen next Thursday September 24th at 7:30 and Sunday September 27th at 3pm at the Koch Theater.