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Festival Ballet Theatre

'Swan Lake'

by Kathy Lee Scott

May 19, 2007 -- Irvine Barclay Theatre, Irvine, CA

Since the demise of Ballet Pacifica in 2004, local companies have vied to fill the void and become Orange County's newest professional ballet troupe. One group is the 20-year-old Festival Ballet Theatre based in Fountain Valley, Calif. For its third "Swan Lake" performance, Salwa Rizkalla, FBT artistic director, invited two Pacific Northwest Ballet principals Carla Körbes and Casey Herd to dance the lead roles.

Körbes' rendition of the swan queen Odette and her counterpoint Odile on opening night was breathtaking. She successfully contrasted the two roles: the tragic, damsel-in-distress queen and the confident, fiery black swan. No wonder Prince Siegfried wavered between them.

Every inch of Herd's 6-foot frame radiated royalty. Unfortunately his role consisted mainly of striding around the stage, gesturing with a crossbow and emoting. He fell victim to Balanchine's and other choreographers' view that "ballet is woman." However, in the two third-act solos, he revealed his strong line and clean manly leaps and turns.

But Long Beach Ballet's Johnny Zhong stole the show. As the Jester, he captivated the audience with his obvious joy and exuberance for dancing. His role showed off his considerable talent with split tour jetés and sharp batterie. He pantomimed distinctly and with humor.

No other dancer came close to his expertise. Maybe 14-year-old Megan Yamashita could potentially become a leading dancer with more training. In the Act One pas de trois, she displayed sure pointe work, focus and the elation of dancing. Her companions Scott Weber and Bridgette McNulty danced well but didn't exude any charisma. McNulty's petit allegro was clear. Weber's partnering faltered a bit when he pulled Yamashita off pointe during a supported pose.

The dearth of male dancers diminished an otherwise good show. The quartet of FBT company members Oscar Gonzalez, Pablo Infante, Evgeny Lushkin and Weber danced the simple choreography adequately. None showed any spark like Zhong, who commanded attention whenever he took the stage.   To that end, when Zhong first appeared on stage, one audience member thought he was the prince instead of the jester, despite his wearing a traditional jester outfit of checkered top and dark red tights.

Rizkalla filled Act Two with 24 swan corps, mostly company members. The rest of the corps de ballet came from either advanced or pre-professional classes at her studio, Southland Ballet Academy. However, some showed concern about their technique and shoes, leading to cautious dancing.

The stage size seemed problematic when the entire corps filled the stage. At times a few members had to squeeze between each other when switching lines. A couple times, one or two dancers hugged the front set pieces.

The four petite swans – Judith Aranas, Roma Daravi, Monica Stainer and Janae Sykes – moved in sync with each other for the most part, especially during the passé series. One emphasized her head movements more than the others, spoiling the synchronization. Personally, I thought the others should have followed her lead as her emphasis enhanced the movements.

One of the three tall swans – either Elizabeth Chasteler, Leslie Kester or Torey MacDonald – held her body so tense she moved stiffly.

In a post-show interview, Rizkalla said that the company had one day to walk through the entire ballet with the two principals. She had contracted with them at the last minute after her initial invitees from the Kirov Ballet could not get tickets to the United States. Because Rizkalla was unfamiliar with her guest artists, she worried about their ability to carry the show. "They may have done the roles one time recently," she said.

She needn't have worried. Körbes embodied the willowy swan queen, relaying her pathos to the audience in sweeping port de bras and cambrés. She filled every beat of music with movement, flowing one phrase to the next. Her pointe work was flawless and secure. She beat the petite battements so fast, they shivered at her ankle. Her bourrées glided across the stage. Nothing felt difficult or out of reach for this dancer. She dazzled the audience.

Körbes transformed into the antithetical black swan – self-assured, flirty and devious, no weakness or pathos anywhere. She knew she wanted Prince Siegfried and went after him determinedly, alternately drawing him close then flinging him away. I wonder how exciting her Carmen would be.

Körbes' Odile drove her pointes into the earth – none of this pussyfooting around for her! She knew how to use her beauty and allure. After Siegfried vowed to marry her, Odile's 32 fouettés showed her triumph over the white swan.

Rizkalla was surprised a dancer as young as Korbes, 25, did so well. Most ballerinas consider the Odette/Odile role the most demanding in the entire ballet repertoire.

Costume designer Donna Dickens created lovely dresses for both the dancing and non-dancing roles, such as the Queen Mother (Willa Bouwens-Killeen). The bright pink court ladies' outfits in Act One stood out from the pas de trois' lavender ones. In Act Three, the costumes for the four groups of national dancers brightened the stage.

According to Rizkalla, both Körbes and Herd provided their own costumes. In particular, the black swan was gorgeous, while the white swan costume hardly contrasted against Körbes' fair skin.

Rizkalla based her choreography on that by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and used recorded music at the performances.

For a semi-professional production, the dancers gave a superb performance and deserved the audience's standing ovation.

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