Texas Ballet Theater is closing its season this weekend with a Swan Lake that’s saturated with drama well before all those rows of fluttering swans have snaked onto the stage.
It’s the swan song of Lucas Priolo, the popular principal dancer who’s retiring after a decade with the company, and Artistic Director Ben Stevenson paid tribute to him in introductory remarks from the stage Friday night. He also dedicated the production to “the fabulous Bruce Wood,” the Fort Worth choreographer who died Wednesday. “Bruce was doing some of his finest work. … There’s a hole in the arts in the Metroplex,” Stevenson said.
And when he welcomed the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, which because of the ballet’s budget problems had not accompanied a Texas Ballet Theater performance since 2008, the audience cheered.
Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score for Swan Lake is, of course, one of the great glories of this art form. And you noticed the orchestra, led by guest conductor Michael Moricz, all night long. With live musicians, you can hear texture and subtlety, as when you detect that different sounds — like the brass and a plaintive solo violin — are coming from different regions of the pit (instead of blasting out uniformly from the Bass Hall speakers, which always seem too loud).
But mostly, live music makes the whole thing breathe. There’s more at stake for the dancers, who are having to listen and respond to their musical collaborators, instead of just stamping out another performance to music they hear exactly the same every time.
Early on in Swan Lake, as in most story ballets, the drama level is low. In a long but pleasant party scene, Prince Siegfried’s (Priolo) coming of age is being celebrated with the usual courtly dances. Things perk up with the bubbly pas de trois, thanks to the charismatic Simon Wexler, Katelyn Clenaghan and Robin Bangert. Stevenson does so many of these little “character dances” well (there are several vivid ones in Act 2).
But the heart and soul of Swan Lake are the lakeside scenes. With a moonlit night and a claustrophobic frame of droopy, creeping foliage covering everything, the mood is gothic and close. Prince Siegfried (Priolo) spies and falls in love with Odette (the wonderful Carolyn Judson), a princess who has been turned into a swan by the sorcerer Von Rothbart (Tim O’Keefe in an splendid winged swamp-creature getup).
There’s one enchantment after another: the changing formations of swans in white classical tutus, those famous oboe solos (you’ll know the music), the grand pas de deux for Odette and the Prince, the four cygnets holding hands while executing fast footwork in a devilish little set piece that is always a Swan Lake highlight.
You may find yourself wishing there were even more than 16 swans in the corps (bigger companies, in Houston and elsewhere, put 24 onstage, and the wall-to-wall effect helps transport you).
Symphony concertmaster Michael Shih did an admirable job with the two long violin solos, lilting and expressive, that accompany the lead couple’s tenderest moments together. His tight vibrato is perfect for the part. (Cellist Leda Larson and Adam Gordon on trumpet also had fine solos.)
But the real star of the production is the flawless Carolyn Judson. You might expect her to be better as Odette than as her alter ego, Odile, the “black swan” who appears in Act 2, but both are beautiful characterizations. Judson’s lyricism is just right for fragile, frightened, lovely Odette, and she easily finds the sharper edges, boldness and speed in the deceitful Odile. The “black swan” pas de deux (in which Priolo was also at his best) was the night’s showstopper, earning a long, deserved ovation.
Priolo didn’t really give us pyrotechnics. He made it through quite competently without giving gasp-inducing thrills. Many retirement performances seem to go this way. But everything else the audience has appreciated about him was on display. He was an affable everyman, a stalwart partner, a grounding presence. (There are two more chances to see the final shows of his career. He and Judson were also to lead the cast Saturday night and tonight; Betsy McBride, and Carl Coomer or Alexander Kotelenets the matinees.)
With Priolo’s departure, TBT’s ranks are looking thin at the principal level — three women and one man. Can’t wait to see what Stevenson does on the next hiring spree.