Swan Lake may evoke thoughts of feathers, tutus and Natalie Portman. In 2014, the Joffrey Ballet set out to change thatand ended up with a hit.
This year, Oct. 17-28, the Joffrey revives its production of Christopher Wheeldon's reimagined Swan Lake ( commissioned for the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004 ). Using the iconic Tchaikovsky score and movement inspired by the original choreography of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, Wheeldon transformed the fantastical love story into a compelling ballet-within-a-ballet. As in the 2014 version, Wheeldon's Swan Lake uses elements of the traditional production, but places the story in late 19th-century Paris, when Degas was painting dancers of the Paris Opera. "You see not only the fairy tale of Swan Lake, but also … the real life of the rehearsal room and that sort of backstage view of how a production was put together in the late 1800s," Wheeldon said.
Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater was enthused about premiering the ballet in Chicago four years ago, but told Windy City Times he was surprised by the audience demographic and turnout.
"It was amazing how many young people came," he said. "I love that there were lots of couples out on a date, that came to see Swan Lake."
Wheater maintained that this Swan Lake is an "excellent" choice for both balletomanes and those new to dance. "We all can watch the Olympics and see people achieve the heights of technique, and I think Swan Lake has all these demands in it."
Wheeldon's choreography is not for the faint of heart. Not only, Wheater said, is Swan Lake technically demanding, but there's also a need for dramatic storytelling.
"I think that for Chris, every role in this production is important, and every single person who is involved [has] to find depth of character for the many roles they're dancing, and how the character plays a bigger part in the overall narrative," said Wheater, who danced with several companies, including the San Francisco Ballet and Joffrey itself, before becoming Joffrey's artistic director in 2007. The production's demands require five different casts, which Wheater admitted "is kind of insane."
The biggest role is Odettethe Swan Queen who risks everything for her lover Siegfried, and who transforms into the Black Swan, Odile, thanks to a spell cast by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart.
For those who have seen the 2010 Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan, this is the role that drove Portman's character to madness.
"It's probably one of the most demanding roles in a ballerina's repertoire," Wheater said. "This time around, we have people who are coming back to [Odette] and people doing it for the first time."
Dancer Amanda Assucena will make her debut as Odette on Oct. 23 and will close out the run Oct. 28. Assucena called the role "every ballerina's dream."
"For Odette, the steps are so pure [that] you can see every little detail that goes into it, and it takes so much control and concentration," she said. "And on top of getting the steps right and looking beautiful, you have to keep the audience engaged."
Stamina is a must. "It's a very long ballet, four acts. There's not one section that's a little bit easier," Assucena said. "In my first rehearsal, I couldn't get through the first step of a solo and that was very frustrating." Since then, "I rehearse every single day, and take notes from the day before, so I can make everything better and don't lose my progress."
Assucena, who is originally from Brazil, joined the Joffrey six years ago after spending a year in the company's trainee program. She appeared in the 2014 Swan Lake in smaller roles, including one of Odette's swan princesses. It was during that rehearsal process that Assucena worked directly with Wheeldon.
"Chris has such a special way of describing a character," she said. "He gets so adamant about having us tell the story, not just do the technical steps. He tells you the whole background and you're able to really embody and become the character."
Assucena also made an impression on Wheeldon, who advised Wheater to cast her in the lead this time around.
"I think there was a connection in the way we worked," she said. "I remember being a swan and thinking, 'I may be in the back line, but I am Odette!' And maybe that's what [Wheeldon] saw and … why I'm doing Odette now."
For Wheater, seeing Assucena and her colleagues rise to the occasion has been "incredibly rewarding."
"I'm just so proud of the company and the work that they do," he said. "To see all the swans breathing as if with one pair of lungs, is beautiful. Every day they're working really hard at finding that unity.
"Some days I'm the only one in the studio with a couple [rehearsing] the Swan Queen and the Prince and I think, 'I am one lucky person.'"
Joffrey Ballet's Swan Lake runs through Oct. 28 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 Ida B. Wells Dr. ( 50 E. Congress Pkwy. ); visit Joffrey.org .