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Nashville Scene Doubled Efforts

Nashville Ballet offers a holiday pas de deux

By Lisa A. DuBois

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Nashville Ballet principal dancer Alexander Srb is the first one to say it on record. "Maybe," he suggests, "in some ways, the tornado was a blessing." Srb is referring to the April twister that devastated downtown businesses, forcing the ballet company to cancel its much-awaited spring performances of Swan Lake. At the time, he says, company members felt really pressed and rushed about mounting the behemoth production, but now that they've been given additional rehearsal time, the show is gelling into a truly resplendent and poignant spectacle.

With Herculean determination, Nashville Ballet is revivifying Swan Lake as the first offering on a split bill of holiday classics that also includes The Nutcracker. "We're performing two of the three best-loved ballets ever. [The other is Sleeping Beauty.] To put on two huge ballets at the same time is like playing two Super Bowls back to back," explains Srb, who has been cast as the male lead, Prince Siegfried, in Swan Lake and as the Sugar Plum Cavalier in The Nutcracker. "It's not often that audiences get to see a company simultaneously mount both a happy holiday piece and a famous love story."

Preparations for such a dynamic duo have tested the mettle and stamina of the 14-member professional troupe, all of whom will be dancing in both shows. Trainees and advanced-level students from the School of Nashville Ballet will round out the corps. "It's a great way to measure ourselves," says Kathryn Beasley Gager, who portrays Srb's love interest in both performances--the Swan Queen Odette in Swan Lake and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker. "Swan Lake is the most technically demanding of all the classic ballets. We're grateful for the extra time to put it all together."

A cutting-edge, all-male version of Swan Lake is currently making headlines in New York City. However, Nashville Ballet's production, staged by ballet mistress Elaine Thomas, sticks to tradition. As a senior soloist with London's Royal Ballet--where the romantic tale was a prestigious staple in the company repertoire--Thomas has danced nearly every female role in the show. Her deeply ingrained experience with Marius Petipa's original choreography has been a driving force behind the dancers' understanding of the characters.

The story is based on European folklore about several young maidens who have been transformed into swans by the evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart; they only return to human form between midnight and dawn. The most beautiful of these enchanting birds is Odette, who can be freed from the spell only when a lover proves faithful to her. Handsome young Prince Siegfried enters the woodlands, falls deeply in love with the White Swan, and promises everlasting devotion.

To stanch the love affair and the impending salvation of his favorite cygnet, Rothbart converts his niece, Odile, into an exact replica of Odette--only Odile is clothed in black. Siegfried falls under the Black Swan's powers and pledges his love to her, believing her to be Odette. The fragile White Swan, eternally condemned by her lover's deception, chooses instead to die. A remorseful Siegfried follows her into the lake, and their lives are inextricably linked in death.

"I hope people appreciate the romance of it," says artistic director Paul Vasterling. "Like any classic work of theater, opera, or ballet, you have to get beyond that late-20th-century [sensibility] and look at the profound love of these two people who are willing to die for their love. It's the ultimate romantic notion."

"It's emotionally exhausting," Gager admits. "It's one thing to go from Odette to Odile, but it's really difficult to go from being the evil Odile back to being the heartbroken Odette."

Srb acknowledges that, as the man responsible for the betrayal of the diaphanous swan, he has to convince audiences that Siegfried is a sympathetic character. "The Prince is so blinded by love that he doesn't even recognize the larger representation of the white and black outfits. He's so in love he doesn't realize he's being tricked. You have to pace yourself. I have to believe in the end that I've gone to hell and back and can't live without this beautiful swan."

Because of the physical and emotional challenges that make it nearly impossible for one principal couple to dance the roles twice in one day, Vasterling has also cast Mayumi Hanabusa and Alexei Khimenko in alternate performances of both Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Gager and Srb will dance both Saturday and Sunday matinee performances of Swan Lake, with Hanabusa and Khimenko handling the Saturday evening show.

Vasterling says that usually around this time of year, the dancers tend to get complacent and bored, but "there's none of that this year." By the opening performance of Swan Lake, the company will have already returned from a multi-city tour of The Nutcracker and will be gearing up for five local performances, complete with Snow Queens and Sugar Plum Fairies, as soon as Swan Lake closes.

In addition, the troupe has been invited to perform This Heart in Basel, Switzerland, March 11-14, 1999, for a gala sponsored by the Swiss Tanz Ensemble. Nashville Ballet is trying to raise money to cover the dancers' per diem and travel expenses so they can accept the offer.

"I'm just really proud of the group we have here," Vasterling says. "I'm proud of the way we've been able to come together artistically as a family."

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