Q&A: 4 Ballerinas On What It’s Like to Be Swan Queen

Swan Queen Q&A - Pittsburgh Ballet TheatreIn the classical ballet Swan Lake, the ballerina’s dual role of Odette/Odile, commonly referred to as White Swan/Black Swan, is one of the most iconic in the repertoire, demanding technical mastery and emotional range to morph from vulnerable and pure Odette to audacious and deceptive Odile. Thematically, these polar-opposite personalities symbolize a battle between good and evil. Choreographically, they also contrast. Odette is fluid and ethereal with the delicate carriage and rippling swan arms that are a signature of the ballet. Odile is virtuosic, demanding attention with a series of heart-pumping jumps and turns, including the famous 32 fouettes of Act 3. 

Here, PBT’s four principal ballerinas and Swan Queens — Amanda Cochrane, Hannah Carter, Julia Erickson and Alexandra Kochis — share insights on portraying two complex characters in one production.

Describe what makes Odette’s technique unique. How do you make it your own?

Swan Queen Q&A - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Alexandra Kochis dances the rule of Odette, or White Swan, opposite Principal Dancer Luca Sbrizzi as Prince Siegfried.

AC: I find one of the most wonderful things about being Odette and Odile is that you have so much room to play with port de bras and the musicality. I like to experiment with different arm movements, and I try to make each rehearsal slightly different, whether I’m exploring the music or just holding a balance a second longer. This allows me to discover what feels natural and expand on things that work for me as an artist/dancer.

HC: Odette’s technique, along with the corps de ballet of swans, uniqueness comes mainly from her port de bras, the way she uses her arms. They are our wings and we try our best to make them look that way.

JE: It diverges from classical, rounded ballet port de bras shapes, because you’re portraying a swan with the swan arms. You need all the carriage of classical ballet technique but then you kind of flip the hand. The beauty of Odette’s technique is that it’s very fluid. You’re able to play a lot more than with your average classical ballet role, so that is very fun. It’s all about length and expression and covering space.

AK: Dancing the role of Odette is classical vocabulary, extrapolated. You are extending a pointed toe but only to better probe the waters. You are raising your arms and inclining your head but with the purpose of unfurling your wings and preening your feathers. The role gives meaning to the movements.

Swan Queen Q&A - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Julia Erickson dances the role of Odile, or Black Swan, in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake.

How do you switch gears from vulnerable Odette to audacious Odile? Describe your interpretation of each character.

AC: Odette and Odile are such polar opposites, I feel like I have to flip an internal switch when I bounce back and forth between the two roles. I approach Odette with a feeling of longing and desire. I try to give her backstory a wounded innocence with a hint of a wild creature, all behind the queenly authority that she has to protect her flock. I see Odette as a strong, enduring soul whose kindness and love triumph evil. Odile is a bit of a trickster. She has to be cunning and seductive without giving away her true identity. I try to give this role more spark and a commanding/alluring presence to deceive the prince. Odile is enthralled by the challenge of winning over Siegfried.

HC: The music and change of costume is going to be a big help for me in switching from Odette to Odile. Odette wears this beautiful white tutu and then Odile is a black tutu with gold lace trim on it that is just as beautiful in its own way. It makes you feel powerful and in charge with a sense of allure. The music does exactly the same thing.

JE: I definitely like to think about it as they’re these two archetypes…these are extremes and they’re portrayed as such. Odile is just the black mirror version of Odette —  if you were to take Odette in all her innocence and beauty and purity and flip it on its head. With Odette, I think we’ve all felt those vulnerabilities of being seemingly lost, our hearts breaking, we feel there’s no hope and then this incredible thing happens and you feel so alive. That’s such a magical thing. Everyone’s felt that – probably too few times in our lives. It’s beautiful in its tragedy and also in its hope. And then Odile is so much fun because basically you’re a trickster. You get to really run the show and plot. Everything is working in your favor. Odile is so confident that she’s just in the flow. The cards are falling exactly how they’re supposed to.

AK: Tchaikovsky’s music drives my transformation. I only need hear the first few coursing notes of Odile’s entrance into the ballroom scene in the third act to feel like the powerful and scintillating seductress that she is in my mind. These characters live in each of us –  the two sides of a coin, the yin and the yang. The fun part of dancing this role is getting in touch with each of them as they exist in you and then giving them a voice.

Swan Queen Q&A - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Amanda Cochrane dances the role of Odette, or White Swan, in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake.

What makes this a bucket list (dual) role?

AC: I have a special place in my heart for Swan Lake. I have loved this ballet since I was young. This iconic score gives me chills down my spine every time I hear it. The technical challenges that come with these roles is something to be conquered and to be proud of when you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. This is a true prima ballerina role that is an honor to perform.

HC: I love dancing classical ballets, and Swan Lake is one of the most famous. I grew up watching the big names dancing roles like Odette/Odile and knew that’s what i wanted to do. I hope i can do it justice.

JE: I think it’s the incredible challenge of having to dance two characters and have two different levels of energy. To transition from Odette to Odile and back to Odette, to have the opportunity to conquer that challenge in an evening of ballet and take the audience on that ride with you, I think it’s a bucket list role because of that. It’s so fun because you have this beautiful freedom of expression. Everyone who’s danced it has danced it so differently…Your individuality really comes out, which is wonderful.

AK: Within the classical lexicon, the role of Odette/Odile is regarded as a pinnacle of both dramatic and technical prowess. To dance it is to go beyond yourself to a realm of suspended disbelief  – where sorcerers do exist and it is possible for a prince to fall in love with a swan queen.

What makes Swan Lake special to you?

AC: Just having the opportunity to be onstage performing this beloved role makes this a special show for me.

HC: I’ve danced the corps de ballet of swan lake many times and have been fortunate enough to dance in different productions with different companies. It’s going to be a new experience and a new challenge dancing this role.

JE: I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet do Swan Lake back when I was a little kid. I was in the front row. I remember being just floored by how beautiful it was. Later in high school…I got the CD and I used to listen to it in my car b/c (the music is) just so compellingly beautiful. This will be my sixth full-length Swan Lake, and it was really my first full-length ballet. I remember being on the journey of my first Swan Lake performance and how it opened me up and took my dancing to another level. I feel like everytime I dance it it does the same thing.

AK: Throughout my career Swan Lake has been a frequent visitor. I have danced many roles, from the corps de ballet on up to Odette/Odile, and had the honor of watching so many beautiful artists make it their own. It is an incredibly special process to take all of this knowledge that you possess at this particular time in your life and assemble it into a unique version of the Swan Queen.