Miami City Ballet tackles Swan Lake with a nod to history, special emphasis on acting

As COVID-19 rages this winter, the Miami City Ballet continues to dance, preparing to perform “Swan Lake” in February, under the careful eye of celebrated choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. Jeffrey Brown spent a day with Ratmansky and dancers to see how they’ve brought this traditional ballet going back to its rediscovered historical roots. This report is for our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As COVID rages on this winter, the Miami City Ballet continues to dance, preparing to perform "Swan Lake" in February under the careful eye of celebrated choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

    Jeffrey Brown spent a day with Ratmansky and dancers to see how they have brought this traditional ballet going back to its rediscovered historical roots.

    It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

    Alexei Ratmansky, Choreographer, "Swan Lake": Yes, now, almost good, except that you will like to exit with your feet going back.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A dance studio several weeks before opening the classic ballet "Swan Lake."

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    You make it clear for the audience that that is how the love is born.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And Alexei Ratmansky, one of the world's leading choreographers, was working with dancers of the Miami City Ballet to bring to life this fairy tale of a prince, young women turned into swans, and doomed love.

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    We should get the feeling that the movements are born from the music, or, vice versa, the music is born from their movements.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But they go together.

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    Yes, exactly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ratmansky, now 53, was himself a dancer, trained at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet school, before turning to making dances.

    Choreography, for him, begins with the music.

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    I put on my headphones, and I have this little TV in my head.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In your head?

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    And I see the little figures of dancers doing steps. And then I need to find good combinations of steps, remember them, develop them, explain what I mean, explain well to the dancers, inspire the dancers.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But, with "Swan Lake," he's done something different, returning to the origins of one of ballet's best-known and most-loved works.

    Composed by Tchaikovsky, "Swan Lake" was given classic shape in 1895 by choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in a production at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre. And then it took wing. It's been reworked and restaged for more than a century, with subtle and larger changes to both story and choreography.

    It got the over-the-top treatment in the 2010 film "Black Swan." Ratmansky, a student of dance history, wanted to explore it anew, and found early notations in an archive now at Harvard University.

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    It's the quality of this ballet, which is a masterpiece. You always want to learn from the masters.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Was there a moment where you went — you were surprised and kind of shocked yourself?

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    Absolutely. Yes, I just — I finally saw the logic in everything.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    His new/old version, first put on by the Zurich Ballet, strips down some of the action and emphasizes the pantomime and acting.

    So much about ballet is different now, he says, dancers' bodies, training, even their toe shoes. So, he calls this a historically informed production.'

  • Alexei Ratmansky:

    I try to use all the historical materials available, but, when we get into the studio, we need to make it live theater.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And that, in an exclusive North American premiere, is now in the works in the art deco Miami beach home of the Miami City Ballet, a company that's taken on old and new ballets and been acclaimed for its artistry and energy.

    The company houses a school for the very young up to dancers like these, age 16 to 18, working under Spanish-born Arantxa Ochoa to prepare for auditions with ballet companies far and wide, training in technique, but also, she says, mental preparation.

  • Arantxa Ochoa, Artistic Director, Miami City Ballet School:

    We not only care for the training that is how do they do that perfect peg or how that leg is up there, pointed toes, all of that, but also that they're in the right place, because that's — once that you get in the company, a lot of them, they get to the company, but then they have to survive in the company.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Artistic director Lourdes Lopez knows the ballet life well. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, she became a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet.

    A painting in her office shows her with its legendary leader, George Balanchine. She returned home 10 years ago to take the helm here.

  • Lourdes Lopez, Artistic Director, Miami City Ballet:

    And, somehow, it felt organic. The art form has given me so much as an immigrant. It has changed my life and it continues to change my life every day. I mean, I'm sitting in front of you today because of ballet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A ballet company, she says, feeds and feeds off its city. And this one is very much Miami in its energy and style.

  • Lourdes Lopez:

    I think American dancers have a sense of urgency. At least, certainly, Miami City Ballet dancers have a sense of urgency when they're on stage. There's a youthfulness. There's a hunger that they're just going to eat space and they're going to just go for it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There's also an energy and pride here in the diversity of talent, Latina leadership, dancers from all over, especially Central and South America.

  • Katia Carranza, Miami City Ballet:

    For me, it was — to come to Miami City Ballet changed my life.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Katia Carranza came to Miami from Mexico at 19. She'd had plenty of classical training, but found a new world of dancing here.

    What was the biggest difference?

  • Katia Carranza:

    Well, for me it was like everything. It was much faster than what I knew. And here I realized there is a lot of ways to move your body, and it was a little bit more exciting and more energy and different, different for me.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Nathalia Arja came from Brazil at 15. Now she and Katia are company veterans, getting the extraordinary experience of working with Alexei Ratmansky to create his new-old vision of "Swan Lake," especially honing their mime movements to convey the emotions he wants.

  • Nathalia Arja, Miami City Ballet:

    We will spend hours just having a conversation of, how do you say, you promised to love me, so what…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Without the words.

  • Nathalia Arja:

    Without the words, just body language. And "Swan Lake" nor is also — it's difficult technically, but, most, there is an extra layer of how — being clear of how you tell the story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

    Can you say that to me right now? You promise to love me?

  • Nathalia Arja:

    It would be you, to me, promised to love. But there are so many ways to do that.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Of course, the real black swan in the studio, COVID. This production has already been postponed due to the pandemic and several weeks out, Lourdes Lopez knew it could happen again.

  • Lourdes Lopez:

    It's like the bird just doesn't want to land here, but…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you're going to bring her down at some point.

  • Lourdes Lopez:

    I'm going to bring her or him down, whatever it wants to be.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For now, the hard work and the giant leaps go on.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Miami City Ballet.

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