Diaries Magazine

Advice from a Swan Queen

Posted on the 06 March 2017 by Ballerinablogger
So as you may know by now, Maine State Ballet is gearing up to perform the infamous Swan Lake, and I have been cast as Odette/Odile for seven shows. It's a heavy undertaking, because I think Swan Lake and ballet are almost synonymous to the general public. Everyone knows Swan Lake. Even those who know nothing about ballet have the image of long-legged, willowy ballerinas in white tutus and feathered headdresses in mind. And I'm nervous.
I think I'm suppose to be, and I'd honestly be concerned if I wasn't. But still, I'm in need of some advice. So I turned to Maine State Ballet's most prolific ballerina, Janet Davis. She has performed every role in the book - she has seen it all. Who better to turn to? She was kind enough to share her story with me, and I am very honored to be able to share it with all of you.
A bit of context: Maine State Ballet has performed Swan Lake twice in the past, once in 2006 and once in 2012. Janet (daughter of Maine State Ballet's artistic director, Linda Miele) was cast as Odette/Odile in both runs.
advice from a swan queen
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It was a major decision for Maine State Ballet to put Swan Lake in the repertoire.

We had done lots of full length ballets prior to this, but this was serious business.  Finding out I was going to be cast as the lead role wasn't a major surprise, because my principal dancer friends had retired and there were a lot of younger girls at that time. The surprising thing was that Maine State Ballet was actually going to be doing Swan Lake, and the reality of that meant me as Swan Queen… Which I was not.  I just wasn't Swan material.  In my mind, the Swan Queen had to have extension and a beautiful ballerina body.  I had neither.  I was a Balanchine/Miele dancer.  I was in no way, ever in my life supposed to even think about dancing this classical, historical, iconic role, and I had no idea what Mrs. Miele (my mom) was thinking.  I wasn't a Swan. 

This wasn't just a major undertaking for the principal dancers but for all the dancers... The swan corps was nothing like anything we'd done before!  It was a whole new production with all new costumes, sets, staging, and choreography.  Twenty-one white tutus had to be made along with all the other costumes.  So, how did I feel when I found out I was to be dancing Swan Queen?  Well, I guess you could say I was totally in denial.  I had danced Aurora before, but this was another level of dancing for me... another level of performance.  I wanted to be as perfect as my body could be, technically.  I did not want people to say "she has no right dancing this.”  I worked so hard on getting an acceptable arabesque line, turned out feet and pointed toes at all times - no excuses!  I worked on my arms and fingers and head.  I rehearsed for hours on end to make my body the best Swan Queen it could be. 

advice from a swan queen
You have to remember... this is new territory... I had never seen anyone dance Swan Queen before.  There wasn't YouTube to check out. Maybe I had seen an old video of a Russian ballerina from a PBS special, but who around here is really going to look like that?  Not me, for sure.  I guess my biggest fear throughout the rehearsal process was that I really wouldn't be good enough, or do the ballet justice, or that people were waiting for me to fail, or that I would fail the company. But if there is one thing I love, it's a challenge.  This one was a little larger than I was used to, but I took it.  My favorite part and most terrifying part about rehearsing was that I really wasn't good, and I had so much to work on.  It was both fun and overwhelming to learn all the choreography.  I LOVED being in a studio by myself working.  That's been one of my favorite parts of being a dancer over the years - alone time in the studio.  My body was just not made for ballet, so I had to take a lot of time with the mirror to figure out how to make my body do what I needed it to do, or at least try to make it, anyway. 
One favorite moment during rehearsals was the first time I landed my fouettes in fourth position. That was a big goal of mine.  I had done Kitri [Don Quixote] twice prior to this, and landed my turns in fifth, then right up to sous-sous. I really wanted to nail my fouettes with a landing in fourth, and worked for weeks trying to do so, so that first time I successfully did that in a run-through I was very happy.  I ended up nailing the landing in fourth in the shows as well, which I was pleased with.   
advice from a swan queen
advice from a swan queen
I have no idea how many pointe shoes I went through for rehearsal.  I'm not really one to go through pointe shoes that quickly because of how my feet are, and because I rotate them so much.  I'll have 9-10 pairs, anywhere from a year or two old to brand new, rotating through classes and rehearsals.  I do know that for the first time we did Swan Lake I had a pair for White Swan and a pair for Black Swan.  I think I used a different pair for the dress rehearsal and the kiddie show [a benefit performance for local schools]. So maybe a total of 6 pairs for the rehearsal process and 2 pairs for performances.  The second time we did it my ankle was broken, so I didn't have a chance to break in shoes. I used one pair for the dress rehearsal and one pair for the shows.  I didn't rehearse that much the second time, so I probably had maybe four pairs, but with the rotating thing still happening.  Not too impressive numbers.
advice from a swan queen

The first time I danced Swan Lake, I worked so hard in class and I rehearsed so hard that my stamina and strength were there for me.  I mean, by the end of the performance I couldn't feel my legs, but that's because I gave everything there was to be given.  So, I didn't hold back in Act 2.  Act 2 was actually much harder for me than Act 3.  The choreography for the White Swan variation was the hardest for me.  I worked on that variation so much and still was never satisfied with how I danced it.  But I did give it everything I had, no holding back.  Black Swan was the greatest.  The Black Swan variation was very difficult as well, but she's evil, so you can use that feisty energy to your advantage.  Even though I tried not to think of it, the 32 fouettes were always in the back of my mind. It's like, throughout the whole performance you know they are waiting to be done, and although you know you can do them, there is always a slight chance that your leg might not feel like cooperating.

advice from a swan queen

I also had a four-year-old hanging out backstage the first time I danced Swan Queen.  I had family in the theater as well, so I didn't have to worry too much about her whereabouts. But she was always in the back of my mind.  I had to make myself not worry about where she was, or if she touched a head piece, spilled something on my tights, or things like that.  One dress rehearsal I had to go back to my dressing room for some reason, and there was my four-year-old with red lipstick all over her face!  I said, “I told you not to play with the make-up.” She said, “I wasn't playing with it, I was doing my make-up like the big girls, see?”  How could I be mad at that?  The second time we did it she was 10 and in the production so it was a little easier.  But being a literal “Ballerina Mom” is a whole different story, maybe for another day.  advice from a swan queen

advice from a swan queen

left to right: Glenn Davis (Janet's husband), Emma Davis (daughter), Janet Davis, Linda Miele (Artistic Director and Janet's mother)

The second time I danced Swan Lake, I had a lot of injuries.  I was actually quite surprised that Mrs. Miele chose me to do the ballet, because I really wasn't in any condition to be dancing it.  Luckily, I had Dave Reese [the Maine State Ballet Company’s physical therapist] to get me through the rehearsal process.  I saw him twice a week for a couple months, and more than a few times there were tears because I was in a bit of pain. But more than the pain, I was stressed out from all the pressure that comes with being the only principal dancer available to dance a role.  I had been carrying this weight for years, and this was almost too much.  But Dave kept telling me, “You'll do it… You're doin' great... You’'ll do it.”  And my good friend Katie Farwell was a big help too.  I can always count on her for a laugh, and I needed to laugh during those classes and rehearsals.  Anyway, I couldn't rehearse how I wanted to, but I learned that "older dancers" that have put in the time have access to technique and strength, because they have a special key.  They don't have to kill themselves rehearsing like they did when they were younger because all they have to do when performance time comes is unlock the door with that special key. That key is experience.  My motivation the second time around was to make the audience feel.  I knew my skills were not what they were six years earlier, but I knew I had something more to give than perfectly pointed feet and double fouettes. I knew I had what other people didn't and that was a lifetime of dance experience, and a love of ballet that surpassed everyone around me.  My prayer was that my performance would let the audience feel something beautiful.  Now, a huge part of this was my partner and husband, Glenn.  We worked together as a team with the same goal in mind.  The performance was going to be the most important thing.  Don't get me wrong, the audience was always the number one thing for me over the years, but having a dynamite performance was always a very, VERY close second.  This one was different.   I knew it was a miracle that I was actually on the stage dancing. It was a very memorable performance for me.  

advice from a swan queen
The biggest lesson that Swan Lake taught me is that an Ugly Duckling can absolutely turn into a Swan Queen.  That's the honest truth.I would love to relive all of it.  Every single second of all of it.  If I had to narrow it down, I would say that I would love to relive the feeling of being in absolute control of my body during the '06 performances.  If I had to narrow it down to one scene, it would be the 4th Act in the last performance in 2012.  The emotions I went through in that scene at that moment in my career are inexpressible.  I won't ever forget that.  If I had to narrow it down to one dance, it would be the Black Swan coda of my last performance in '06.  And if I had to narrow it down to one moment, it would be 2012’s last performance - the final turn into arabesque in the spotlight... before coming down from arabesque and seeing the curtain start to close. That feeling that I've given everything I possibly could have given mixed with overwhelming gratitude, and sheer exhaustion.

I guess my advice to a rookie Swan Queen would be...

1. Don't try too hard with the acting.  Do the choreography and feel the music and that will get you where you need to be with the acting.  2. Work hard in class and rehearsal. Choose a few things you know you need to work on and take some alone time to work on them. 3. Enjoy every second...

advice from a swan queen

* Thank you, Janet. Here's to giving this show my all, and following your wonderful advice. *

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