Sized To Fit

November 28, 2001

Swan Lake
with only nine swans in the corps de ballet—and not one of them wearing a tutu? When Jan Burkhard, now in her third season with Carolina Ballet, first heard about this out-of-the-box version of the classical ballet created in 2005 by the company’s artistic director, Robert Weiss, her first reaction was, “How is that possible?”

“Every Swan Lake has a gazillion swans in the back, and I’d never heard of swans who didn’t wear tutus,” Burkhard recalls. “But when I saw it, I was blown away. Normally all the corps swans do the same exact steps, but in his choreography, every girl gets to do something different and each person can be her individual self.”

Weiss’s Swan Lake—in which the swans wear flowing gowns with iridescent underskirts that ripple like feathers—is one of half a dozen classics he has tailored to fit his artistic sensibility, his budget and his 31-member company, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. The company will premiere his latest retelling, Sleeping Beauty, on May 15; Weiss describes it as a sort of “greatest hits” version of Marius Petipa’s 1890 ballet.

“I thought about it and thought about it, and suddenly it occurred to me that the greatest thing about Sleeping Beauty is the highlights—the Rose Adagio, the third act pas de deux, the Bluebird Pas de Deux, the Garland Dance,” Weiss says. “I’m taking all the best parts of Petipa’s choreography and changing the rest to make it more intimate.” His version will also feature bigger roles for the Lilac Fairy and for Carabosse, who will be danced by his wife, ballet mistress and principal ballerina Melissa Podcasy. The costumes are by David Heuvel, costume production director for Ballet West, who has designed several of Weiss’s previous productions.

“Ricky”—as Weiss is known to friends and company members—“has a great way of condensing the ballets but still getting the whole story with all the depth and all the different perspectives,” says principal dancer Margaret Severin-Hansen. “As a dancer, you still feel the fulfillment of dancing a full-length classic.”

Weiss, who danced with New York City Ballet for 16 years and directed Pennsylvania Ballet for eight, makes it clear that despite his tinkering, he’s a huge fan of the full-length classics, as staged by venerable companies like The Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi, the Kirov and the other troupes that entranced him as a child growing up in New York City.

“I started going to the ballet when I was 5 years old, to see The Nutcracker,” he says. “The lights went down, the curtain went up, and I was transported to this magical place and never looked back. I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. I grew up with these classical ballets, seeing many, many versions by many, many companies. This was every bit as much a part of my education as working with Balanchine and Robbins at City Ballet.”

In the decade since he arrived in Raleigh to become founding director of Carolina Ballet, Weiss has built an impressively diverse repertoire of more than 60 new ballets, including contemporary works by Christopher Wheeldon, Peter Martins and resident guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett.

For dancers, a small, busy company—Carolina Ballet put on 70 performances last year and has eight productions scheduled for 2008—means the opportunity to log lots of stage time, perform in a wide variety of styles and participate in the creative process.

“I started getting big parts created on me six years ago, and it’s a great adventure because Ricky does let you work with it and put yourself into it as opposed to telling you what to do,” says principal dancer and founding company member Lilyan Vigo, who danced Odette-Odile in Swan Lake and will dance Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.

That’s also true for Podcasy, on whom Weiss choreographed the lead roles in Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in 1999, followed by Carmen in 2000 (Weiss has also choreographed his own versions of The Nutcracker, Cinderella and Handel’s Messiah). For Romeo and Juliet, Weiss focused on the principal characters, used only six Montagues and six Capulets and cast local students in the roles of peasants and orange sellers in the street scenes.

“When I learned John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet at Pennsylvania Ballet, I was told exactly what to do,” Podcasy says. “When Ricky did his own down here, I was able to pretty much create my own version of Juliet. It’s been a wonderful, creative part of my career to be in so many new ballets and making parts from scratch all the time.”

Weiss says that Romeo and Juliet got him thinking: “If I could do this ballet small, what else could I do? What else could I reduce to its essence and make into a full-length evening?” An audience survey convinced him to try his hand at an original, full-length Carmen, set to music by Georges Bizet never before used in the ballet, along with variations other composers made on Bizet’s themes. The six Montagues and six Capulets morphed into six cigarette girls and six soldiers.

But Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 Swan Lake, with its bevy of swans and courtiers, had Weiss stumped—until one day, browsing in a local bookstore, he discovered Lisbeth Zwerger’s children’s book based on the ballet. “She tells the story in pictures and a few sentences that go with each picture,” he explains. “There are five princesses and a lead princess who get turned into swans, and there are the mothers and fathers of the princesses who come to the ball.

“I realized there was a way of doing this in a very intimate way,” he continues. “I did my own Swan Lake from beginning to end, not based on Petipa but based on Tchaikovsky’s libretto, and was able to tell the essence of the story very clearly. I basically brought this children’s story to life.” For Weiss, this included sets and costumes inspired by Zwerger’s illustrations and the book’s happy ending.

The result was a huge hit, selling out every night at home—though the company encountered some confusion among audiences during its seven-city tour of China in September 2006. “They knew the Petipa Swan Lake, and they had never seen anything like this,” Weiss recalls. “You could hear them talking during the performance—they were changing seats so they could talk to each other. It was a revelation to them to see it done this way.”

It was also an eye-opener for principal dancer Timour Bourtasenkov, a founding member of the company who grew up in the former Soviet Union. “I’ve never seen anything like it, to be honest,” he says of Weiss’s Swan Lake. “It reminds me of a mid-18th century, beginning 19th-century Russian court dance.”

As for Sleeping Beauty, still very much a work-in-progress at press time, Bourtasenkov says, “I have no idea what’s going to happen. But with Ricky’s vision and his creativity, it’s going to be good.”

Tresca Weinstein is a freelance writer who covers dance, the visual arts, yoga, travel and home design for national and regional publications.