the apex of dance stands -- en pointe -- "Swan Lake."
"Nutcracker" may have more familiar music and "Don
Quixote" the more spectacular leaps. But when most people think
of ballet, lithe (and astonishingly athletic) female bodies gracefully
imitating great white birds are what come to mind. It is the classic
to which all others in the genre must be compared.
A new "Alaska"
version of "Swan Lake" will debut Friday and Saturday
in the Discovery Theatre. Alaska Dance Theatre's "Qug'yuq"
(the Yup'ik word for swan) retells the story of a girl sinisterly
transformed into a bird and the frantic love she shares with a human
who is unaware of the magic conjured up to keep them apart.
This time, however, the swan and her swain
come from a Yup'ik village. Their nemesis, intent on keeping the
girl for himself, is no one less than the powerful trickster, Raven.
The usual balletic pirouettes and plies are augmented by Yup'ik
Eskimo drumming and dance.
"We wanted to introduce a story ballet,
but we knew we didn't want to restage 'Swan Lake,' " said Codie
Costello, the executive director of Alaska Dance Theatre. "But
reading through it again, we began to think about how we could merge
it with Alaska Native stories."
The thread of humans transforming to animals
and vice versa, for instance, is a recurring feature in both European
fairy tales and Native lore.
The result was a collaboration with the
Alaska Native Heritage Center, which supplied thematic elements
along with traditional Yup'ik dancers, re-envisioning the choreography
as well as the story.
"We took as a base the classical
'Swan Lake' and gave it our own twist," said Alaska Dance Theatre's
resident choreographer, Gillmer Duran.
It's hardly the first time that directors
have dived into "Swan Lake." Tchaikovsky himself repeatedly
adjusted his original score. His brother rewrote the story to give
it a happy ending. There have been animated film versions of the
tale. Cheery "Swan Lakes." Obsessively morbid "Swan
Lakes." "Swan Lakes" set in a Victorian insane asylum.
Matthew Bourne's stupendously successful all-male "Swan Lake."
And, at the moment, a hit movie, "Black Swan," which recapitulates
much of the story in a film about -- what else? -- ballet.
the origins seem unsure. Internet sources usually cite a folk story
written down by one Johann Karl August Musaus around 1780. But all
say that that story, "The Stolen Veil," only marginally
presents the outline of the grand romance in Tchaikovsky's ballet.
The sources appear to be quoting each
other; none directly quote the presumed original. I was unable to
find a copy of Musaus in Anchorage or an English translation of
"The Stolen Veil" online. It may have gone out of print,
at least in English, before the ballet hit the stage.
It's hard to tell whether Musaus' "Veil"
was one of his original creations or something he copied from other
sources. His work as a folklorist, particularly with regard to Nordic
legends, may have been used by Wagner in his "Ring of the Nibelung."
But Musaus personally preferred to write satire.
Some of those essays in irony may be more
readily availably. But they're no more ironic that the fact that
Musaus, of Jena, Germany, the hub of Protestant piety, studied to
be a preacher. He had a parish lined up when scandal erupted. Not
embezzlement, lechery or suspect doctrine. No, what knocked him
off his legs was persistent gossip that he had at some point --
horrors! -- danced. It's an astonishing twist in the career of the
presumed originator of the world's most famous ballet.
Which brings us back to the "twist"
at hand -- the melding of Western and Yup'ik dance styles. "It's
actually pretty freaky to picture the two of them blending together,"
Freaky but not unprecedented. The multitalented
Ossie Kairaiuak, who will lead the Heritage Centers drummers and
dancers, has previously collaborated with Alaska Dance Theatre choreographers.
The final rehearsals to bring it all together
won't start until this week; a number of Alaska Dance Theatre performers
have been in Eugene, Ore., to work on new material for the company,
Last year the Anchorage group formed a
partnership with the Eugene Ballet Company, from when Duran hails.
Some results of that partnership will be on display in "Qug'yuq."
Costellos said a core of eight professional
or apprentice soloists from Anchorage and Eugene would be joined
by about 50 students from Alaska.
Alaska Dance Theatre is taking some new
steps with "Qug'yuq." It's an evolution of the company's
"Favorite Tales and Stories" showcase, which has previously
been presented at their dance studios in Midtown.
"It's grown so much over the past
few years that we wanted to move it downtown," said Costello.
while previous Alaska Dance Theatre shows have used minimum sets,
or no set at all, "Qug'yuq" will feature a full stage
setting now under construction at Anchorage Opera. The costumes,
by Anastasia Semak, who also designed the set, will feature kuspuk
A synopsis provided in a press release
notes some of the main story points.
Tulukaruk, the Raven, entranced by the
beautiful Qug'yuq, transforms her into a trumpeter swan under the
glow of the northern lights.
A young villager named Ciuqnaq falls in
love with her when he spots her in the bevy. (That's what you call
a bunch of swans a-swimming. On land, they're a herd of swans; flying,
it's a wedge of swans.)
There are some additional enchantments
involving various wild animals, a big fight and village scenes where
much of the Yup'ik dance will be featured.
Elsewhere, in lieu of the familiar Tchaikovsky
music, Duran is using excerpts from Mahler's Symphonies No. 2 and
And does it resolve joyfully or in tragedy?
We're not telling.
But the creators, at least, are hoping
for a happy ending -- or a happy beginning.
"We would like to do some fresher
work in the future," said Duran. "I'm really interested
in that. So hopefully this will be a good start."