Boston Ballet dancers on Boston's Swan Boats.  Photo © Liza Voll

Boston Ballet dancers on Boston’s Swan Boats.
Photo © Liza Voll

From October 30 to November 16, Boston Ballet presents artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s new production of “Swan Lake”. Carla DeFord chats to principal dancers Lia Cirio, Ashley Ellis, and Misa Kuranaga, who will appear in rotation as Odette-Odile, about how they are approaching this supreme challenge to the ballerina’s art and about more mundane issues, such as how they recover from such intense performances.

Arguably the best-known as well as the most arduous role in the entire classical ballet repertoire, Odette-Odile reveals not only the ballerina’s individual personality and style of movement, but also her way of thinking about good and evil, power and submission, love and death. In dancing this role each ballerina becomes a link in an unbroken chain of tradition forged over a hundred years ago that includes such luminaries as Ulanova, Plisetskaya, Fonteyn, and Makarova. In the words of celebrated dancer Tamara Rojo in a recent BBC documentary as she put on the Swan Queen’s headdress,
they are about to take their place “among all the other
ballerinas who have worn these feathers.”

Lia Cirio

CDF: Have you danced “Swan Lake” before?

LC: I danced the White Swan pas de deux with James Whiteside [former Boston Ballet principal dancer] at my school, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, for a reunion gala in 2005, and we danced the White and Black Swan pas de deux in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with the Allentown Symphony. We were both in the corps then. This will be the first time I have danced the whole ballet. I’m developing as an artist and learning so much from this experience.

Lia Cirio rehearsing Bostal Ballet's new production of'Swan Lake'.  Photo © Liza Voll

Lia Cirio rehearsing Bostal Ballet’s new production of’Swan Lake’.
Photo © Jeffrey Cirio

What are your goals in portraying Odette-Odile?

I want to show that every step is part of the story and reflects what’s going on in the character’s mind. The beauty of “Swan Lake” is that it’s two different stories, and I love to delve into each one.

It’s important to me that Odette be more than just a sad bird, although one can play her that way, but she’s still a queen, and she has her pride. Sometimes that pride takes over, and we see that when she resists the Prince, but then there’s the moment when he catches her, and she melts. I want her to have that ebb and flow of emotion, a journey from fear to trust.

Can you describe the coaching process?

Working with Larissa [Ponomarenko, former Boston Ballet principal dancer] is a gift. I saw her “Swan Lake” in 2004 and 2008, and I almost worshipped her in it.

In addition to helping me make my arms more feather-like, she gives me words of wisdom. For example, about Odette’s entrance in Act II, Larissa said, “We’ve been flying, and now we’re landing on the water.” That explains the Swan Queen’s movements at that moment;  she is looking at her reflection in the lake and seeing how beautiful she is.

In Act IV when the Prince comes in, and Odette looks into his eyes, Larissa said the Swan Queen is asking herself, “Why did I do it? Why did I trust this man?” By giving us different things to think about, Larissa helps us imagine Odette’s interior monologue and her emotional states.

What part does your partner play in your interpretation of the role?

Lasha [Kozashvili] and I have been dancing together since he came to Boston in 2010. He has done “Swan Lake” before in [Democratic Republic of] Georgia and when he guested in Kazakhstan.

We’ve gotten so used to each other that it’s easy to have the chemistry and working relationship we need. I completely trust him in the lifts; he’s massive, has long arms, and knows exactly where my weight is. He also gives me ideas and little tips. He’ll say, “Why don’t we do this grip?” He’s always trying to improve his partnering.

Lia Cirio in 'The Nutcracker', which follows hot on the heels of 'Swan Lake'.  Photo © Liza Voll

Lia Cirio in ‘The Nutcracker’, which follows hot on the heels of ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Does hearing the music played by the orchestra make a difference?

The score is so beautiful. That’s a joy. When the orchestra plays it, it’s almost haunting, and so powerful. Jonathan [McPhee, Boston Ballet Orchestra principal conductor] understands us and gives us what we need. We feed off each other in performance; he watches you, and you listen to him.

You have a lot of experience as a contemporary dancer. Does that influence your “Swan Lake” in any way?

I’m working on becoming a more classical dancer, so I don’t want to bring in a contemporary look, but maybe the way I use my back to make it look more bird-like is influenced by my contemporary experience. Contemporary dance is more ‘bendy’, and I’m capable of bending in lots of ways, so I can use that to my advantage.

Do you find the fouettés in Act III a challenge?

My legs are hyperextended, like Larissa’s, and that hinders me sometimes. I try to practice my fouettés every day. Mikko [Nissinen] says, “Every turn is
like a dagger sent out into the audience.”

How do you recover from a performance?

I like to go to dinner with my family although I find it hard to eat right after the performance. I need to wait a couple of hours; then I want pasta.

I take Epsom-salt baths and lots of vitamins, and I usually go to class the next day. I’ll do the barre and most of center, but not the jumps.

Does your family live nearby?

They live in Pennsylvania and usually come to Boston for opening night or my first performance. They sacrificed so much for me and my brother [Boston Ballet principal dancer Jeffrey Cirio] to make sure we got the best training. We’re both so grateful.

Ashley Ellis and Joseph Gatti in the Black Swan pas de deux from Corella Ballet's production of 'Swan Lake'.  Photo © Fernando Bufala

Ashley Ellis and Joseph Gatti in the Black Swan pas de deux from Corella Ballet’s production of ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Fernando Bufala

Ashley Ellis

CDF: When did you first learn “Swan Lake”?

AE: I learned it in 2009 when I was with the Corella Ballet. Angel [Corella] taught me the role of the Black Swan. Magaly Suarez taught me the White Swan.

How did you develop the intricate port de bras you use during Odette’s entrance?

I remember watching YouTube clips trying to figure out the path the arms take – how she brings each one down. I realized there was a rhythm to it, and I figured it out on my own, but I think I based it on a ballerina I had seen on video. It may have been Evelyn Hart, who was wonderful in “SwanLake.”

Who are some of your other influences?

Growing up, I remember watching a video of Susan Jaffe and José Manuel Carreño in the Black Swan pas de deux. In my early years as a professional, I loved to watch clips of Julie Kent in the second act pas de deux. I also look to Makarova, especially the way she uses her back and shoulders.

Who has been coaching you at Boston Ballet?

Larissa. This is the first time I’ve been coached by someone who has danced the role. She’s so great at focusing on the angles of the arms and hands; she tells us, “You have to be able to see the wing.” I’m looking forward to growing in this role by learning from her attention to detail.

What are the special qualities you want to bring to “Swan Lake”?

In terms of Odette’s feelings, I want to make it real and human. Also, I want to focus on the contrast between Odette and Odile. In Odette I want to show the loving, soft qualities; in Odile I want to capture the way she entices the Prince, luring him and playing with him. Being the bad girl is so much fun. In general, I want to emphasize the honesty of the dancing so that the characters feel real, and I’m not just doing steps. The goal is to put technique aside so that it becomes art.

What are some of the difficulties of the role?

Because it’s a four-act ballet, and I dance in three of them, it’s very demanding. The White Swan pas de deux is so hard because it requires tremendous control. You need a lot of strength, so you have to build up your stamina. There is also the challenge of portraying a swan. You have to create lines that express yourself as a creature as well as a human being.

As the Black Swan I have the challenge of doing the fouettés, and I have to keep practicing them to build up stamina. Larissa pointed out that just as Odette falls under von Rothbart’s spell at daybreak, the purpose of the fouettés is to put Siegfried under a sort of hypnotic spell so that he will fall into her trap.

What is the importance of partnering in this role?

My partner helps me shape my interpretation. In the second act pas de deux Odette is thinking about her relationship to Siegfried. In Act III, Odile is tricking the Prince. She has to use her eyes to control him by pulling him in and then pushing him away. In Act IV, Odette is heartbroken and trying to decide what her future will be. The more I’m feeling from my partner, the more I can give him. I’m dancing with Eris Nezha, and he gives back wonderfully; we’re always feeling each other’s thoughts.

How would you describe your relationship with the music and the conductor?

Being in the moment with the conductor gives us the freedom to take more time. It’s something so special. By the time we’re onstage, we’ve already got the tempos worked out, so I can play with my phrasing and try to achieve fluidity.

My partner and I are looking into each other’s eyes, reading each other. We’re playing with the music together and feeding off it. The music helps me create the character and makes the performance feel like a real artistic experience. I’m embodying the music, and I feel best when I’m connecting with it.

How do you recover from a performance?

After the show I’m exhausted, but the adrenalin is still there, so I can’t go to sleep right away. I like to go out, eat good food with plenty of protein, talk to people, and have a beer, which is supposed to be good for your muscles. The next morning I go to class. I might not do all the jumps, but I like to do the stretching.

What do you think of the new production?

It will be exciting to get onstage and see the new sets. This is a classical version of “Swan Lake”. I think it’s going to be beautiful.

Misa Kuranaga in rehearsal for 'Swan Lake'.   Photo © Liza Voll

Misa Kuranaga in rehearsal for ‘Swan Lake’.
Photo © Liza Voll

Misa Kuranaga

CDF: Have you danced “Swan Lake” before?

MK: I did it about two years ago in Tokyo when I was guesting at the Komaki Ballet. At that time I wasn’t really ready. “SwanLake” is the hardest ballet in the repertoire stylistically, and this time around I’m much more comfortable and experienced.

Who taught you the role?

Larissa. We couldn’t rehearse in Japan, so Larissa prepared me. When I first learned it, we did not have a lot of rehearsal time, but for this production we are really getting into the details. I’m being taught by a legend, and it’s such a wonderful feeling. I love being coached by her for any role, but especially this one.

What difficulties are you experiencing in preparing for this role?

Dancers in “SwanLake” are expected to be tall and long. I’m neither. Larissa has long arms and legs, but she’s about my height, so we have the same body type. She has studied how to extend her line and is able to pass on to me little tricks to make myself look as long as possible. It’s so special for me that she’s sharing information she has collected all through her life about how to become the swan.

When I’m working with her, I forget about time. She makes me so into it. I love to dance, but I can get tired; with her I never feel that way. It’s so much fun. Every single thing she gives me is inspiring, and she uses words so well. I can perfectly picture what she wants
and how the movement should look. It’s so important for us as dancers to understand
what coaches and stagers want.

Who are your influences?

I used to watch a lot of videos, but I’ve come to hate copying other dancers. Now I have Larissa, and we are creating the role together. Of course, I have watched Makarova and other Russian dancers. Makarova is so animal-like, and like me she’s small in stature, so she too had to work on creating a long line.

Tell me about the characters of Odette and Odile.

Odette is trapped in a swan’s body; although she is beautiful and pure, she is very unhappy. One day the Prince steps into her life and changes it. Odette wants to be in love with him, but at first she can’t. Falling in love can be painful. Odile is confident, sexy, edgy. She is two-faced and not nice, but she is also a strong woman.

The Prince must marry and become a king, but he finds this beautiful swan-woman whom he cannot marry. So at the end of the ballet he feels he has nothing in his life. In this version of the story, both Odette and the Prince die in Act IV. Even though von Rothbart also dies, and the spell is broken, no one wins completely.

What is the importance of partnering in this role?

“SwanLake” is the most famous of all ballets and the most difficult. The partnering is basic, but it includes many lifts. I’m dancing with Jeffrey Cirio, and the way he partners me is very gentle, which really works in “Swan Lake,” especially the White Swan pas de deux.

Both of us are short, and we don’t want to look like youngsters. Our goal is to achieve a more grown-up look. It was really an honor for us to do “Diamonds” last season because those roles are usually done by taller dancers. We wanted to look long, calm, and mature. I think we brought those qualities to the roles.

Since we’ve been dancing together for a while, we now know more about each other, and our timing is better. Also, we’ve been trying to deepen our characters by putting more weight into our acting. We’re building a partnership and creating something together.

How do you recover from a performance?

I can’t eat much before a performance. I think the quality of my movement is better when I’m a little hungry. I wait about four hours after a big meal before I dance. After a performance, I like to see friends, and I crave Asian food so much. If I don’t have it, I go crazy.

Boston Ballet presents Mikko Nissinen’s “Swan Lake” at the Boston Opera House, October 30 to November 16. For details, click here.