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Photograph by Jon Gerbetz
BIRD MASTER: Baron von Rothbart controls a harem of bird-women, including the Black Swan.

Swan's Way

Ballet San Jose's 'Swan Lake' expands the role of villainous magician Baron von Rothbart

By Marianne Messina

TRADITIONALLY, amid Swan Lake's beautiful princesses and graceful, feminine swans, the evil magician Baron von Rothbart doesn't get much attention. The story usually focuses on the tragic lovers Prince Siegfried and Princess Odette, and how their love is thwarted by the baron's curse—by day she becomes a swan subject to the baron's control.

"In most versions, you have von Rothbart in the back just flapping his arms around," says Jeremy Kovitch, one of three male dancers who will dance the role in the Ballet San Jose production. But artistic director Dennis Nahat's scenario extends the baron's role, has him appear earlier and fleshes him out in a prologue that bares his psychology. As a result, the baron's lack of stage time translates to "a mysterious neighbor that no one sees," as Nahat puts it. "He is a loner ... an eccentric in his own world." Kovitch believes that "although we don't have as much stage time as the Prince and Odette, it's probably the lead role of the ballet."

In other words, von Rothbart is present even when he's absent. "If von Rothbart isn't onstage," Kovitch muses, "what they're doing [the prince and Odette] is almost about her ties to him and how von Rothbart affects them." The baron is also a man with an ideal, the beauty of the swan—an ideal he seeks both to become and to possess. "In Rothbart's mind," Nahat explains, "he is a bird and has transformed his mind and body into one." We can expect to see this eccentric psychology in the baron's moves and costumes.

This fleshed-out, mysterious bad guy demands more of the dancers than solid technique. "I feel like I have to psyche myself out before doing it," Kovitch admits. He and the other two Rothbart dancers—Hao Bo and Mads Eriksen—say that even as they rehearse the moves they try to embody the character in a balancing act between technique and emotional expression. "Feeling is very, very important," says Bo.

Compounding the task, the baron is not a traditional male lead with familiar expectations. "All boys are wanting to be the prince and are sculpted to be the prince," explains Eriksen, to which Bo adds a knowing smile. To portray such a villain, Eriksen says, "You sort of have to rethink the way you walk" and everything else. For Kovitch, the baron's defining tone is anger. "I don't believe he is being truly evil, but—it's hard to explain—he's very angry." This von Rothbart has control issues. Comfortable in a world he creates with a harem of swan-women he can master, Rothbart cannot make Princess Odette love him. "He becomes progressively more sinister and evil as the acts go on," explains Eriksen, sliding more toward his dark side "as the swan [Odette] gets pulled further and further away from him by the prince."

A run-through for the production is filled with directors, including Symphony Silicon Valley's Dwight Oltman, who is seated before a thick, yellowed score and conducting with a pencil. To a Cleveland Symphony recording of Swan Lake that Oltman conducted, he "pushes" the beat with his left hand because Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake score, "thick," as he says, with horns and sound, tends to slow the musicians down.

Like the music, this Swan Lake production will be David Guthrie big (costumes and sets) with a spectacular finish. "The Baron is overthrown by the power of their love and his entire kingdom crumbles in a fiery earthquake," Nahat foretells. Lighting designer Kenneth Keith is less forthcoming with details. He divulges that a hint of evil red may creep into the blue-paletted aura of the swans' moonlit lake. As to the ending, Keith only promises, vaguely, that it contains a "meltdown."

SWAN LAKE, a Ballet San Jose production, plays Feb. 15–16, 21–22 and 23 at 8pm and Feb. 17, 23–24 at 1:30pm, with a children's show Feb. 16 at 1:30pm at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $25–$82. (408.288.2800)

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