Swans N' Roses
This week heralded the openings of two spectacular shows put on by two of Chicago’s finest resident companies: Porchlight Music Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet. Porchlight’s Gypsy opened October 16, and Joffrey’s Swan Lake opened October 17. Both performances received instant, well-deserved standing ovations, and long-lasting curtain calls.
I will not be writing much of a review for Gypsy, as I am an actor in the show and cannot give an accurate audience perspective — but, after all, this blog post is not meant to be solely for the purpose of reviewing shows; rather, it is an introductory account of my personal experiences as a performer and student who is fairly new to the Chicago scene.
If Mama Rose is the King Lear of female musical theatre roles, Odette/Odile is the Mama Rose of female classical ballet roles — and, in my opinion, both were performed masterfully at their opening performances (Odette/Odile was danced by Victoria Jaiani on opening night). E. Faye Butler and Gypsy have received nothing but glowing reviews from around the city, and friends of mine who have seen the show say that Porchlight takes the story of Gypsy to a whole new level. As a cast member, I certainly feel that this production raises the bar in many ways, and it has prompted a sense of “rising to the occasion” among everyone involved. Chicago audiences certainly seem to agree that we have done just that.
Gypsy was the perfect show for me to make my Chicago musical theatre debut in. It is a story about chasing dreams, broken families, love, loss, and finding oneself — all things I have experienced throughout my artistic journey which eventually led me to this great city of theatre and the arts. And to share the stage with E. Faye, a powerhouse who is just as gracious as she is talented — in addition to working with an amazing cast, crew, and creative team — well, that is a dream come true in and of itself. I am also grateful for the additional role and responsibilities of Dance Captain for this production. It is a job that I did not even know existed before I got started in theatre two years ago, and it is one that I feel I have been suited for all my life. I was always the person other people came to when they had questions about counts, choreography details, and backstage logistics. My brain and disposition are naturally suited to managing such things, and to be granted the ability to do so while also being able to contribute my own ideas has been a wonderful experience. I hope to find more Dance Captain opportunities as I continue learning and performing, and finding ways to apply what I learned from ballet to my journey in the world of theatre.
Prior to this past evening's performance of Swan Lake, I had never actually seen a full-length production of this ballet. I did perform in it multiple times; but even then, it was never the full story — most often, it was Act II or varying excerpts of the swan dances. In my youth, I danced the Big Swans variation in an end-of-summer-intensive performance, and later danced as one of the four Little Swans/Cygnets during my time with Nevada Ballet. Having grown up in the realm of classical ballet, it was both touching and satisfying to see a fresh spin on the well-loved fairy tale that is one of the most widely-known pieces in existence, even among non-balletomanes. Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake is a meta-theatrical version in which the Principal Dancer of a company is rehearsing with the other dancers for, of course, Swan Lake; and finds himself transported into the world of the ballet itself.
Coming to a ballet performance always gives me a sense of coming home. I did feel myself getting emotional at first sight of the stage; designed to mimic the inside of a ballet studio, with touches of surrealism, such as a larger-than-life mirror which reappears throughout the ballet and represents both a metaphorical and literal Alice in Wonderland-like feeling of stepping through the looking-glass. The set was so simple, and yet so strikingly elegant. At the top of the ballet, several Ballerinas trickle in to prepare for rehearsal, led by the Ballet Master (Fernando Duarte), a wealthy Patron (Fabrice Calmels, who doubles as Von Rothbart) enters to observe. The Principal Dancer, portrayed by long-limbed Dylan Gutierrez, is leery of the Patron’s intentions towards the dancers; in particular, the star ballerina. Act I shifts between dances being rehearsed, and interactions between the Principal Dancer, the Patron, the Ballet Master, and the dancers. Amanda Assucena, April Daly, and Yoshihisa Arai dance an exquisite pas de trois amid all of the corps dances. Assucena is exceptionally adept in her variation. At the conclusion of rehearsal, the other dancers leave, and the Principal Dancer faces an empty studio, preparing to envision and rehearse his role of Prince Siegfried. The Patron watches from the shadows, and is revealed to be the sorcerer Von Rothbart as we are taken into the Principal Dancer’s mind, where lies a mystical lake, a swan queen, and her maidens. Victoria Jaiani embodies a delicate, tender Odette, with sinewy limbs and an air of grace and poise.
In Act II, the Principal Dancer becomes so deeply invested in the story that he almost believes it is real, until it fades away and he finds himself back in the studio. Gutierrez has a commanding presence on stage, yet he finds a satisfying balance in that his strength does not detract from his character’s humanity. I was pleased to see that the corps de ballet, save for just a couple of barely noticeable snafus (a late arm movement or a teetering sous-sus), was so much more unified than in previous productions I have seen. Whatever they are doing this season seems to be working, as I felt that the swans were truly dancing and thinking as one. Act III opens with a gala dinner to celebrate the premiere of Swan Lake. The lighting, which was perfectly designed in other scenes, was a little dim for my taste during this act. The colors evoked a richly dramatic, authentic Gothic feel, but it was genuinely difficult to see the dancers’ faces at times. The Ballerinas and Gentlemen dance together, followed by a charming pas de quatre. The Patron interrupts the festivities with a surprise troupe of cabaret dancers, representing various cultures in their stylistic dances. The Russian dance features an interesting striptease of sorts, not unlike Louise’s starring “Let Me Entertain You” moment in Gypsy. It is followed by an invigorating Spanish number, which was danced well but left me wondering why they chose to light the number with bright shades of green, and why they chose to have Mexican-born Anais Bueno don a vibrant red wig; a combination that gave the impression the dance was meant to be Irish-themed. The final “Can-Can” number felt very much out of place, but perhaps that was the intent.
In the midst of all the revelry, the Principal Dancer is distracted by his ethereal imaginings of Odette, and the Patron takes advantage of this. He introduces a beautiful ballerina to the Principal Dancer, who mistakes her for the woman in his dream. Fantasy and reality blend together as a vision of Odette appears in the window, and the Principal Dancer — who now has fully assumed his role as Siegfried — realizes that he has condemned her to her fate by swearing his love for the imposter, Odile. In Act IV, the swans all mourn their loss as Siegfried and Odette profess their final declarations of fidelity. The swan maidens are heartened by their pure love, and turn on Rothbart, defeating him long enough for Siegfried and Odette to share a sorrowful farewell. Siegfried, stricken with grief, runs after Odette even after she and her swan maidens have long faded from view. Somehow, the Principal Dancer finds himself back in the studio, among several ballerinas and Odette herself. They reach for each other’s hands with a hopeful smile as the curtains close on the ballet. The audience is left wondering what is fantasy, and what is reality. To quote an audience member I overheard, “They added a little theatre to it, but it’s the same dances. It’s so meta.”
In all, it was a lovely experience to see Wheeldon’s vision for Swan Lake come to life, although I missed its 2014 premiere, as I had not yet made the move to Chicago. Patrons could be heard humming the romantically tragic strains of the Swan Lake theme as they exited the bustling Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. When I left, however, I was singing a different tune; one whose lyrics rang true for this production’s opening: “Everything was beautiful at the ballet.” It was heartening to experience my first Chicago musical theatre opening as an actor in Gypsy, and to attend the fantastic opening of a ballet I know and love so well the following day. It was a moment of coming full circle by appreciating and looking back on my roots while facing the future with excitement and a smile. I certainly look forward to performing in the rest of Gypsy's run, and catching other shows here and there on my evenings off — everything's coming up roses for the theatre and arts community of Chicago.
Tickets for Gypsy, which runs at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts through November 25, can be purchased at https://porchlightmusictheatre.org/events/gypsy/
For more information about Swan Lake, visit http://www.joffrey.org/swanlake