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In Miami, Climbing Ballet’s Everest: ‘Swan Lake’

MIAMI — “Will this bird ever land?” Lourdes Lopez, the artistic director of Miami City Ballet, said in January.

The bird she was referring to is “Swan Lake.” For years, Miami City Ballet has performed a one-act version, by George Balanchine, but back in 2016, Lopez decided that it was time for the company, which she has led since 2012, to take on the full-length ballet, with all the trimmings.

But she would have to wait six years — and weather a pandemic — before getting her “Swan” to the stage. The production, the largest and most expensive in Miami City Ballet’s history, is finally scheduled to have its premiere, on Feb. 11, at the Arsht Center here.

Searching for the right production, Lopez had looked to versions performed around the world, each reflecting the taste of a different choreographer. One night, she clicked on a YouTube video of a production that had recently premiered in Zurich.

“At one point, I remember the prince reached out and his hand grazed Odette’s tutu, and I just started to cry,” she said during a break between rehearsals at the company’s Miami Beach studios in November. Odette, the ballet’s heroine, is a woman who has been turned into a swan by an evil magician. “This wasn’t about a bird,” Lopez said, “it was about a woman and the tragedy of the human experience.”

The choreographer was Alexei Ratmansky, but his sources were ballet notations written down only a decade after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s “Swan Lake” premiered in St. Petersburg, in 1895. Those notations were like a bridge to the ballet’s origins before it had been changed by generations of choreographers and dancers.

Not long after watching that video, Lopez approached Ratmansky, who agreed to stage the ballet for her in Miami. A premiere was scheduled for 2019, but it had to be postponed because financing wasn’t in place.

The opening was reset for 2021 — but Covid got in the way. This week’s premiere, too, has at times felt like something of a gamble. Over the winter holidays, the Omicron variant was spreading quickly and several dancers tested positive for the virus. The troupe’s return to the studio had to be pushed back and the rehearsal schedule adjusted to account for dancers in various phases of quarantine. For weeks, there has been frequent, sometimes daily, testing at the company, and rehearsals are masked.

“It’s like the ballet is looking at me and saying, ‘How much do you really want me?’” Lopez said when we talked in January.

The answer, it seems, is, very, very much. Miami City Ballet, founded in 1985 by the former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella and the philanthropist Toby Ansin, is not known for story ballets, particularly those made in the 19th century. Rather, it has specialized in works by Balanchine (the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet), combined with ballets, mostly abstract, by Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Justin Peck, and others.

Which is not to say that this is the first time these dancers have taken on a 19th-century classic. The company has danced “Giselle” and “Don Quixote,” though they aren’t staples of its repertory. (Balanchine’s 1951 one-act “Swan,” which focuses on the ballet’s lakeside acts, downplays the narrative.)

“It is really the greatest ballet, bar none,” Lopez said of why she wanted to take on a full-length version. “I think it will really inform the dancers, and help them grow. It is something they can come back to again and again.”

It is a stretch for a company of 54 dancers. To fill its ranks, the company has had to augment the corps with more than a dozen upper-level students from the school. Fifty-seven dancers are involved in each show.

Originally produced by the Zurich Ballet and La Scala, with an atmospheric set and period-appropriate tutus by Jérôme Kaplan, this “Swan Lake” is also a throwback to the dancing style of an earlier era. Ratmansky and his wife, Tatiana Ratmansky, who is assisting him, studied a form of dance notation developed in the late 19th century to get a sense of how it was being performed in the years close to the ballet’s premiere.

They found many discrepancies between the “Swan Lakes” performed today — versions proliferate — and what was written. The notations, recorded in 1905, revealed quicker tempos, more mime, different patterns for the corps de ballet, forgotten poses. Perhaps most surprising for contemporary audiences, the famous lakeside pas de deux for the heroine, Odette, and her suitor, Prince Siegfried, includes a third participant, Siegfried’s best friend Benno.

In this earlier version of the ballet, Benno assists in the partnering at key moments. He lifts Odette away from Siegfried, creating the impression that she is gliding through the air, and acts as a pedestal onto which she can step, so she appears to float before Siegfried’s eyes. These moments add a hint of anti-gravitational magic to the scene.

Benno was present in the pas de deux in some productions in Russia until the late 1950s and in Europe and the United States until the early ’60s, when the arrival of stars like Nureyev made his presence seem superfluous. “They wanted to put the focus on Siegfried,” the Russian historian Sergey Konaev said in an email. “Soviet ballet didn’t appreciate accessory roles.”

“It’s almost like he’s not there,” Nathalia Arja, one of the dancers scheduled to perform the role of Odette, said of Benno in a Zoom call after a rehearsal. “His friend is there to help him capture this magical creature,” added Renan Cerdeiro, who will play Siegfried to Arja’s Odette.

Arja and Cerdeiro, who will perform in the opening night cast (if all goes as planned) have shared the stage for years, and studied at the same school in Brazil, the Escola de Dança Alice Arja in Rio de Janeiro, run by her mother. “Renan was my first partner,” Arja said.

The two have performed Balanchine’s one-act “Swan Lake,” and the so-called “Black Swan Pas de Deux” as a stand-alone piece. But this feels different. “It brings back so much more of the story,” Arja said. “You’re telling the story in every single moment. An arabesque is never just an arabesque.”

A lot of that drama is conveyed through mime, a system of codified gestures that mimic words. Plot points can be explained with greater clarity than they could through abstract movement. But mime is considered old-fashioned, and is often cut from the old ballets. Ratmansky feels that it adds to the texture of the story.

“I love the fact that the characters speak to each other, and that you can tell who is saying what,” he said.

This was illustrated in a rehearsal last November at the company’s headquarters. As the final lakeside act began, the dancer rehearsing Odette, Katia Carranza — there are four casts — staggered on. Pointing to where she had come from, she “said” to her fellow swan maidens that the man she loved (she clutched her hands to her heart) had cast her aside (she flung her arms as if tossing something in the trash) and that here, in this place, she would die (she plunged her arms down until her wrists crossed in front of her).

Then, as the prince partnered her, her arms and neck hung limp, as if she had lost the will to live. This soft, less formal way of holding the body is visible in period photographs, Ratmansky said, as well as in early films of the great British ballerina Margot Fonteyn: “No tension, no tendons sticking out in the neck, and the arms are human and soft.”

This softness is the opposite of the crisp, taut dynamism of Balanchine, which the dancers are so used to. “They need to learn to sing more with their bodies,” Ratmansky said. “It’s about having a pliant back, a soft neck. They have to sing when they’re on pointe, with their back, their spine, and their hands.”

Getting there has not been an easy process for the dancers. “It’s an endless reaching,” Arja said of this way of moving, which she ascribes as much to Ratmansky as to the intentions of Petipa and Ivanov. “The combination of technique with freedom, clear and powerful at the same time, that’s very Ratmansky.”

He encourages this quality in rehearsal with a running commentary, sculpting the movement moment by moment: “Sustain, resist a little bit here.” “Pull yourself up and sustain the epaulement.” “Relax your upper body.” “Move with more lightness.”

Meanwhile, Tatiana Ratmansky has devoted her attention to the corps de ballet, coaxing a more expansive, lyrical style. “We’ve been working a lot on being softer,” she said after a rehearsal. “I teach them to trust their body more, to allow their hips to go one way and their upper body to go the other way, with contrapposto,” a term from visual art that describes the distribution of weight across the body, and resulting curves.

As Ratmansky put it to the dancers at the end of a long, sweaty rehearsal: “‘Swan Lake’ is like Everest. It takes a collective effort to reach the top.”

To all this effort, Miami City Ballet dancers bring their characteristic energy, and a powerful musical drive. The big ensembles, performed at a lively clip, reveal syncopated rhythms that often get lost in productions by other companies. There are no static moments.

But the challenges are real. “Rehearsing with a mask is hard,” Arja said, “because you can only see your partner’s eyes, and you can’t have that full embrace.” And there is that worry, every day, that a test may come back positive, forcing them to stay home for several days, losing precious preparation time, or even that a performance might have to be canceled.

Even so, two weeks before the premiere, Arja was feeling more confident. “With Ratmansky’s help, and just by rehearsing it over and over, I’ve discovered so many layers of emotion in my character,” she said. “It’s something I had to work through for myself. And I know it won’t all come out on opening night. It’s going to be a voyage of discovery.”

A few weeks before the premiere, there was a sense that the bird might finally land. “You can’t understand what it means to bring this unbelievable masterpiece to South Florida,” Lopez said. “This is what we do — we rise to the occasion.”

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