Fifty years after Cynthia Gregory’s first performance of Swan Lake in San Francisco, she coaches Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Alissa Dale in the role
Cynthia Gregory remembers when she first performed the dual role of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake, because her aunt gave her a circular pendant with the date engraved on it: April 23, 1967. Only 20 at the time, Gregory was on tour with the American Ballet Theatre in San Francisco, and the company’s ticket sales were sluggish, as she recalls. What’s a surefire way to goose ballet ticket sales? Stage Swan Lake.
“For some reason, when people think of ballet, they think of Nutcracker and Swan Lake,” she says. “You know, those are the main classics. And they go, ‘Oh, I want to see that!’”
Before leaving ABT in 1991, Gregory would dance the lead role in many ballets around the world, but Odette-Odile remained the part for which she was best known, and in which she was most at ease.
Fifty years after that debut, this February 25 and 26, Nevada Ballet Theatre presents Swan Lake at the Smith Center with a live orchestra. Playing Odette-Odile in the full production for her first time will be 35-year-old Utah native Alissa Dale. Her artistic coach: Cynthia Gregory.
After their second day of rehearsal, the two sat down to talk about what the role means to them, and to ballet in general. Bridging five decades with their shared experience, they found that some things have changed, but much remains the same.
Swan Lake is the story of star-crossed lovers Odette and Siegfried. She is a princess cursed by the sorcerer von Rothbart to live by day as a swan; he, a prince under pressure to get married. The two meet by chance at a lake and fall in love, but von Rothbart thwarts their romance by conjuring up Odette’s doppelganger, Odile, a black swan who seduces Siegfried. Here, Gregory and Dale talk about the challenges of the role.
Alissa: This will be my first time doing the full production.
Cynthia: Yeah, Odette and Odile. It’s a wonderful feeling to do the whole thing.
Alissa: I just remember, after doing the second act only (in Nevada Ballet Theatre’s 2013 production), feeling — done. And then we did the third act of Sleeping Beauty along with it. I did one of the fairies in Sleeping Beauty, and I was dying.
Cynthia: It is demanding. I found Swan Lake easier, though. Besides the white swan act (II) and the black swan act (III), you have the fourth act, but the fourth act is more emoting and not as difficult. When you do Sleeping Beauty, if you do all three acts, it’s a lot of technical dancing in that third act. I remember thinking, “Oh, I have to hold myself until the last minute!” But for Swan Lake, you can just let go and have fun with it in the fourth act.
Alissa: I’m really excited.
Cynthia: To me, the difficulty of Swan Lake is really differentiating between the two characters. You have to go from one to the other and then back. … What do you think is going to be difficult about it?
Alissa: What I’m going to have to accomplish with the black swan. I feel like Odette is more who I am on the inside, so finding that character was kind of easy. Developing the swan characteristic was the hardest part (of Act II). But I feel like with the black swan, I have to find a different character … to find the line between a more seductive black swan, Odile, and the really loving, open, more naïve Odette, and being able to pull from that, but also portray someone very different.
Cynthia: It’s interesting. The prince is fooled, but he’s fooled because of the way you’re acting. He would really be a fool if you were mean and completely different. Then why is he falling for you? So, you have to have the glimpses of the white swan. I think it’s a matter of how you approach the dancing. The arms are maybe a little bit sharper, there’s an edge to it, whereas the white swan is softer. People used to say, “Odette is like a pearl, and Odile is like a diamond.”
How did you play Odette: More swan than woman, or more woman than swan?
Alissa: I remember, especially at the end of the second act, when she turns back into a swan, that all that feeling (of woman) was gone, and you’re just an animal. But other than that, I think it kind of develops. For me, I kind of felt more swan at the beginning, and then as he opens her up, I felt more woman.
Cynthia: A lot of people just stay the swan, you know. ... I always felt the same as you: that you had to find the woman in you to show that they’re falling in love, so it makes the audience kind of identify with the love that you feel, that this awakening is true love, and their destinies together — somehow they were just meant to be.
Although Swan Lake was first staged in Moscow in 1877, most contemporary presentations are based on Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1895 version. Over the years, many choreographers have adapted and tweaked the ballet, set to the music of Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. But it has enjoyed continual popularity, represented by its influence on Darren Aronofky’s 2010 film, Black Swan.
Cynthia: Did you see that movie?
Alissa: I did.
Cynthia: I didn’t like it.
Alissa: I didn’t like it at all.
Cynthia: It didn’t show ballet in a good light.
Alissa: No, it didn’t. And it twisted it into a psycho-thriller. There are definite stresses in the ballet world, but not like that. That was crazy.
Cynthia: They took all the things that people think about ballet — the bleeding toes and the mean director and all that — and just blew it out of proportion. But people kind of loved it, and so now they all want to see the real Swan Lake, I guess.
Alissa: Hopefully, they’re not disappointed with the real story, which doesn’t involve all that. … I actually think that it was one of the first performances I saw. I grew up in Kanab, Utah, which is a little bitty town, and my mom took me somewhere more artistic and bigger, Cedar City, I think. I think it was Ballet West that came on tour there and did Swan Lake. I remember they were in white. I was little, probably 7 or 8, and I was just enamored of it. The stage had steps leading up to it, and one of the dancers came down those steps, and I got to talk to her and actually meet a real dancer. That was before I started dancing or even knew what ballet was, because in Kanab, we didn’t have ballet. … That first experience with ballet was written in my brain.
Cynthia: It’s definitely a role you aspire to, like Giselle and Sleeping Beauty. Those three are the epitome of the classical ballerina roles that make you feel like you’ve become a ballerina when you’ve done them.
Alissa: A lot of people, when I tell them that I do ballet, they say, “Oh, you’re a ballerina.”
Cynthia: People think anybody who dances, even the little Suzy who goes to her ballet class, is a ballerina, you know. And it’s not true.
Alissa: So, I would always be like, “No, no, no. I’m going to correct you there. I’m not a ballerina. I do ballet. I hope to someday be at that level.” And somewhere along the line, I had the understanding that you have to have danced certain roles in order to be called a ballerina.
Like the production of Swan Lake, the art of ballet has evolved. Athletic performers have pushed technical boundaries, while companies have responded to the corresponding demands on dancers’ bodies with improved support and training.
Cynthia: When I was working with Margot Fonteyn in a couple of tours, she would say, “I could never do what you’re doing now when I was doing those lead roles. You’ve come so far.” She was almost 60 then. It’s the same thing from me to you, you know. I think so many dancers now, like you, your bodies are better, the lines are more refined, and the legs are higher than when we were dancing.
Alissa: I’ve been studying the video of you dancing (Odette-Odile) with Fernando Bujones (in 1985). I’ve also watched videos of current ballerinas doing it and, apart from a six o’clock penché (one-foot balance, with the opposite leg lifted behind), which I think is sometimes unnecessary, there’s not a big difference. Technique has come so far these days that people are doing double and triple fouettés (whipping turns with one leg raised) and triple attitude turns and so much, but sometimes, the story gets lost.
Cynthia: I feel the same thing you do. I think some of the heart and soul has been lost because of the athleticism. … You have to make the technique work for you as a tool to tell the story.
But dancers are athletes. When sports medicine started coming out, that related to ballet. When I was dancing, toward the end, we had a masseur or physical therapist kind of person on our tours, but the first 20 years I was with ABT, you got injured, you’d be out, or you got injured, and you still danced and tried to make it through. We didn’t do Pilates and all those other things. It was just, very primitive in its way.
Alissa: I think we have better tools. Like, we have the Pilates studio, and it’s easy to visit multiple times a week. And we have physical therapists who come two to three times a week. It’s hard to get in with them. We only have 15-minute slots, but it helps. I do think the notion of knowing when to stop is hard to find. We (dancers) talk about it all the time with each other. … Like, do I push really hard on day one, or do just enough and then push a little harder on day two? I think everyone of us is a little different.
On the lay-off, I went and visited my parents. My mom is a yoga teacher. She got certified at 67. She and I did yoga every day. I didn’t do any ballet.
Cynthia: I think that’s important too. I kind of like the idea of not doing ballet for a little while. You need that rest.
Alissa: People have asked me numerous times how I’m still here, after 13 years at NBT. And I think for me, part of it is taking breaks. That way, I come back reenergized and excited about the work.
Cynthia: When I danced, I felt the audience. Do you feel the audience?
Cynthia: Yeah, they could make me dance better.
Alissa: They can change your performance.
Cynthia: Your energy. That’s a really cool thing. I think it’s one of the nicest things about dancing, that connection that you somehow have with the audience, that can make you — as one of my partners used to say — 20 pounds lighter. …
I think audiences today expect more fireworks, more athletics. They do expect that, but they’re human beings, and if you can touch them, and I think you can, not only with the fireworks, but also with the beauty and the story and the pathos of the whole thing. ... We’re still trying to bring people out of their lives into what we have to say.
Alissa: I think that’s definitely it. When you talk about being a ballet dancer, there’s the technique, and a lot of times, it’s considered an athletic pursuit, but we are artists. If you think about where art comes from and the purpose of it — in addition to just ballet — I think my goal is to affect people’s lives a little bit.
Cynthia: To raise their consciousness.
Alissa: Yeah, to what could be going on in their own world.