Harriet Clark on Staging Act II of Swan Lake for American Repertory Ballet’s “Classic Beauty” – March 8-10

Beginning on March 8th, American Repertory Ballet (ARB) will present Classic Beauty, an all-Tchaikovsky program of excerpts from two beloved ballet masterpieces—Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty—at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Rehearsal Director Harriet Clark brings her vast experience as a dancer and choreographer to staging Act II of Swan Lake following the classic choreography after Marius Petipa. She tells us about her work on the production and her vision of ballet in general. 

What does it mean to you to work with American Repertory Ballet? 

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with this exhilarating company. American Repertory Ballet has a long history of presenting exciting dance and innovative works. I think this is particularly true now under the leadership of Artistic Director Ethan Stiefel. To be able to guide these extraordinary young artists in such a wide range of repertoire is really an amazing opportunity. But it is particularly rewarding to have the chance to work with them on this classic ballet alongside Ethan Stiefel and Gillian Murphy.

How do you approach the staging of an iconic work that has such a prestigious history and rich tradition as “Swan Lake” does? 

I was very fortunate to have danced at American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s. I rehearsed with and shared the stage with some of the greatest artists and interpreters of these roles at the time. Our coaches imparted the knowledge of this ballet as it was passed down to them—verbally and through demonstration. To stage Swan Lake for American Repertory Ballet, I have reached back into my past to recall information, stories, and images to help the dancers bring the choreography to life not just as beautiful steps but as a way to convey an emotional story. This is very much the same way it was handed down to me. 

Harriet Clark

It can be easy for audiences who don’t know much about classical ballet to get wrapped up in ballet’s grace and not be specifically aware of the power and athleticism of the dancers. How do you remind the audience of that power here, especially since communicating the strength of the swans, alongside their delicacy and vulnerability, is very important to you to convey in this staging?

This is the biggest challenge of creating a new ballet audience. Audience members can see ballet as beautiful pictures and lose sight of the underlying physicality and strength of these very real dancers. Imagine a football player trying to make his every tackle appear effortless, or a soccer player scoring that amazing goal while coordinating his arms with poise and grace. That is essentially what ballet dancers are doing. It takes tremendous strength for a dancer to appear as lithe as a swan, to make a leap that is sustained in the air seem effortless, or to lift a person fully overhead and then lower them with control and musicality. But beyond this, every movement in some way must tell us who these characters are and propel the story forward. There are just so many layers to create this magical place by the Lake. 

This is of course true for the dancer portraying the Swan Queen, Odette, and for Siegfried. But it is also true for every dancer on the stage. When the corps de ballet of swans appear, they are a vision dancing as one. And yet each is a living, breathing dancer. They are athletes challenging themselves to dance to their fullest potential, and yet be together. They are jumping, running, breathing hard, and feeling it. Each individual swan is striving to perfect the exact shape of the arms, the inclination of the head, even the clarity of their gaze. 

But why is this unity so important? In staging this production, I have tried to imbue the why of these very familiar steps, shapes, and movements. What can this corps de ballet of swan maidens signify beyond being doomed and powerless, and how do you channel their power so that there is softness but not submission? If each dancer invests their performance with individuality, personal artistry, and commitment to the story it all comes together. And this effect is breathtaking. I believe even audience members who are unfamiliar with ballet can feel it. 

In what ways have today’s ballet dancers’ approach to and expression of their art form changed, compared to dancers from a few decades ago? 

Today’s generation of dancers are extraordinary. They are so technically strong in ways we couldn’t imagine back in the 1980s. There is a more refined look to the lines of the legs and feet, and they have great power. I think that this look and underlying strength give their performance a different energy and grace.   

What would you tell those who are totally new to ballet to encourage them to attend?

I would say to a person that is new to ballet to take a chance, and when you are seated in the audience and the lights go down, allow the full experience to envelop you. Beyond the beautiful dancing, there is undeniable physicality, energy, raw emotion, and a very human story. Though Odette is transformed by day into a magical creature, she is also a woman who has fallen in love and has not given up. Siegfried may be a prince, but he is also a young man facing the challenges of growing up, and the burden that has been placed on him to choose a wife when he does not feel ready. And suddenly, there she is. The swans rely on Odette as their leader, yet they remain strong individuals in their support of each other. These are things we can all relate to.

Most essentially, I would encourage every audience member, from the youngest to the oldest, to really listen as the dance and story unfold. I have been challenging the dancers to do the same because it is all there in the music. In fact, I have a personal theory that if every person on this planet had the opportunity to dance to this magnificent Tchaikovsky score, the world would be a better place. 

Tickets to American Repertory Ballet’s “Classic Beauty” – March 8-10

Harriet Clark

American Repertory Ballet

Photos courtesy of Harald Schrader Photography

About Maria-Cristina Necula (182 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives," and the collection of poems "Evanescent." Her articles and interviews have been featured in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Opera America," "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center, CUNY. In 2022, Maria-Cristina was awarded a New York Press Club Award in the Critical Arts Review category for her review of Matthew Aucoin's "Eurydice" at the Metropolitan Opera, published on Woman Around Town. She is a 2022-24 Fellow of The Writers' Institute at The Graduate Center.