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Four moving as one in Swan Lake

PNB dancers Carli Samuelson, Amanda Clark, Liora Neuville, and Leta Biasucci in Kent Stowell’s Swan Lake.
Photo by Angela Sterling and used with permission
Four women in white tutus crosslink their arms in front, then apparently move as one across the stage with head and feet synchronized. This "danse des petits cygnes" occurs in the beginning of "Swan Lake" and is as famous a moment in the ballet as the black swan’s fouettes later in the evening.

For Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers, being part of this particular pas de quatre means both excitement and a few nerves, according to four "little swans" who discussed the company's production of "Swan Lake" during a break in rehearsals.

“It’s iconic. You have a sense of accomplishment when you do it,” said Jahna Frantiziskonis, who started as a PNB apprentice in 2012 and was promoted to corps de ballet in 2013.

“It’s technical and fast, like what we do as corps (in “Swan Lake”) but so much more packed in one minute,” said Amanda Clark. She's danced at PNB since 2008, first as an apprentice and then as a member of the corps.

“Why my mother likes it, and probably why everyone likes it, is that we’re all dancing together,” added Carli Samuelson, who joined PNB's corps in 2008. “We’re all synchronized.”

They also are traditionally all a bit smaller than the rest of the dancers, since these “little swans” are supposed to be the cygnets huddling together for protection.

“I was really expecting this yet,” said Nicole Rizzitano, who is in her first year as an apprentice with the company after attending Pacific Northwest Ballet School. “But people started saying to me that I would probably learn it because I am short.” To prepare for rehearsals, she watched PNB’s video recordings of their “Swan Lake” a few times to see the company's version of Act II.

What many people don’t realize is that the "danse des petits cygnes," performed as part of the ballet since 1895, varies from company to company. Although originally created as sixteen “pas de chat” (a sideways step) done in unison with the arms interlaced, each and every choreographer who works on “Swan Lake” has their own take of how that should look, just as the Act II and Act IV movements of the entire flock of enchanted swans changes up depending on the version, the number of swans that a company can muster, and other artistic considerations. PNB uses the 1981 choreography by Kent Stowell and staging by Francia Russell, based on the production they had first created for the Frankfurt Ballet in 1975. Like most versions of "Swan Lake" seen today, it draws heavily from the 19th century St. Petersburg versions as well as how this ballet was later danced by England's Royal Ballet. Still, it remains a uniquely Seattle version, created for PNB.

“It doesn’t help if you’ve learned a different version elsewhere,” explained Frantiziskonis. “The accents vary.” And that difference between the turn of the head, the count for the step, while not terribly obvious to the audience, makes a huge difference to the swan, little or big, who needs to stay in perfect line with her fellow swans.

For all the corps members, and the apprentice Rizzitano, the glory and the terror of “Swan Lake” is those crisscrossing diagonals of swans. “You do not want to be the girl who got out of line,” said Frantiziskonis.

Nor do you want to be the swan who led the others astray. “I’m always in the front, because I’m shorter,” said Samuelson. “If you’re the person in the front, you have to be consistent (from performance to performance)” so those who follow you end up where they are supposed to be.
Unlike some other ballets, the speed and the depth of the diagonal lines requires the swans to develop a few tricks to stay perfectly aligned. “You learn to remember the people around you. I’m looking for that head in that moment,” said Clark.

But they all agree, that fast blur of swans, as well as that quick-stepping foursome in Act II, make for some of the most exciting moments in ballet.

“When friends or family come to see me in this ballet, I tell them to watch the big picture. Don’t single out one person. It’s so amazing to see the corps all moving perfectly together,” said Rizzitano.