Houston Ballet Soloist Tyler Donatelli on the Power of Teamwork in Swan Lake’s Famous Cygnets Dance
Like so many little girls, I grew up watching the “four little swans” dance. It always pops up on your YouTube feed if you’re a dancer, so I saw lots of different versions. I figured I fit the type—I’m short and like to do petit allégro—so to do it was definitely on my wish list as a professional.
Because everyone’s coordination is different, I knew getting four girls to dance in such perfect unison would take a lot of rehearsal. Our ballet mistress, Louise Lester, had us practice the dance in chunks: First we’d walk through each section to synchronize our head movements and get our timing perfect, and then we’d run each part multiple times for stamina. We’d have hour-long rehearsals for a one-minute dance!
I performed with two different casts, so I had to figure out the flow of each group. It’s all about the angles. For the pas de chats, we learned to keep the front knee behind the girl you’re following. (In our version, we do 16 full pas de chats, not demis, across the stage. While it’s hard, I think that’s my favorite part because when you get it right with the other girls, it feels so good.) And your arms can’t have too much tension; you have to hold them a little away from your body. Louise told us to link our pinky fingers together, so if our hands were sweaty we wouldn’t lose the grip.
I felt a huge responsibility dancing this role because it’s so revealing if anything goes wrong. But it’s so gratifying, too. Sometimes we’d hear oohs and aahs from the audience when we walked onstage, and we always got great applause at the end. That was so motivating, especially since the ending is such a fight to get through! My feet would inevitably cramp.
The cygnets need to have a good relationship. I was thankful that all of us had the same impression of what we wanted to accomplish and were really supportive of each other. During each show, while the other swans were onstage during the pas de deux, we’d get together backstage to mark through the dance. We’d tell each other “We can do it!” and then high-five to shake out our nerves. All of our shows went well, and we’re pretty proud of that.