Swans are one of the most alluring, mythical creatures, maybe because, unlike Pegasus, they're also real. Zeus took the form of a swan to seduce women; and they were thought to bring messages from the fairies, appearing to mortals as swan knights and maidens at dusk.
These beautifully elegant birds also inspired one of the most remarkable works of 19th century art, the ballet "Swan Lake." Originally conceived in 1887, its imagery of a beautiful woman in a swan costume still defines ballet for many today.
A swan's long neck, grace and beauty makes it perfect to reproduce in dance, says Ballet Idaho ballet master Alex Ossadnik, who is helping prepare the company for its epic production of the Tchaikovsky ballet this weekend.
"It's the ultimate ballet and the ultimate ballet score," he says.
Robert Franz and the Boise Philharmonic will accompany the ballet.
"Swan Lake" also provides the ultimate roles for ballerinas. Odette and Odile: two swans, two sides of the coin. One white, one black. One virtuous, one villainous.
Both are formidable roles in terms of challenging choreography and range of emotion.
Two ballerinas will make their debuts as Odette and Odile - Phyllis Rothwell Affrunti will dance the tragic role of Odette, the white swan, and Adrienne Kerr will take on the guise as her evil black-swan counterpart Odile. (Lauren Menger will perform the role of Black Swan at 2 p.m. April 13.)
"This is the big one," Affrunti says. "You can't rely on your stage smile - there are no tricks. You're just naked out there with your emotion and technique."
In the tale, the beautiful princess Odette and her maidens are captured by an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart. Under his cruel spell, they are doomed to live as swans by day and women by night - until a man swears his love to Odette.
Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette by her lake, which is filled with the tears of her mother. But before he can swear his love, Rothbart spirits her away.
Later, when Siegfried is seduced by Rothbart's daughter Odile into swearing love to her, Odette's fate is sealed.
Originally, and still in many companies today, both characters were performed by the same dancer. One swan is pure and tragic; the other is dark - and it turns out - deadly.
Dividing the role changes the psychology for Siegfried because when she's clearly not the same woman - even through there is magic involved - the fact that he is able to fall for Odile makes him more culpable.
"If you have two different women in the roles, then Siegfried is stupidly deceived," Ossadink says.
As much as Odette is virtuous, Odile is equally poisonous, Kerr says.
"She's sneaky, she's sly and she has no love for him. She's the classic villainess," Kerry says. "She's so smooth people have a hard time seeing who and what she really is, which is evil."
The psychological duality of the role - virgin vs. vixen - is one of the aspects that make this an epic ballet.
It was the focus of Darren Aronofsky's Academy Award-winning thriller "Black Swan." In that film, the main character seeks perfection at both and goes mad.
That's a little far-fetched, Ossadnik says with a laugh, but there is psychology involved in performing either role. That makes coaching these roles closer to counseling than teaching, Ossadnik says.
"It's just technique. In that way, a plie (one of the simplest movements in dance) is no different than a pas de deux. It's all about how you apply what you know. Dancers just get in their own ways sometimes."
There's also a physical duality. The choreographic style of white and black swan is dramatically different and equally difficult.
Affrunti's Odette is all tragedy and sorrow. Her delicate arms must ripple as if they are wings, as she appears to "float" across stage, like a swan on a lake.
The steps they work on are some of the most difficult in the ballet lexicon, choreographed nearly 120 years ago by luminary choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
"People sometimes say they don't understand why this role is so hard," Affrunti says. "It looks like you're doing nothing. That's what's difficult about it."
Black Swan pas de deux is like an Olympic event. She must execute leaps, turns, drops, long balances on pointe with her partner, and the historic 32 consecutive fouette turns - for a dancer, an Everest-level feat when performed on stage- all the while seducing Siegfried.
"Odette is beautiful and tragic," Kerr says. "Odile is the crowd pleaser. In act three, it's sheer abandonment. She's the fireworks."
Taking on this ballet is a monumental task for any company, but especially one as small and nimble as Ballet Idaho. Roles are double and triple cast. The choreography is difficult even for the smallest of roles, from the pas de quartre (four cygnets who perform with military-like precision in the second act) to the pas de trois (three courtiers who perform in the first act).
Compared to other large-scale story ballets such as "The Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella," the drama and passion of this one heightens the stakes, artistic director Peter Anastos says.
"Every finger must be synchronized," he says. "I didn't realize how monumental this is until we were in the middle of it. And the company is really coming together. They all realize how big this is."
The ballet also has an epic history.
"Swan Lake" was, in a way, Tchaikovsky's swan song. Written in 1887, it was his first ballet score - uneven and unwieldy, filled with the feeling of tragedy Tchaikovsky knew in his life.
He never saw it succeed. Its first two productions by lesser companies failed before Marius Petipa and the Imperial Russian Ballet made it a success.
By the time Petipa decided to restage it in 1895, Tchaikovsky had two successful scores to his name: "The Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker."
But Tchaikovsky died before Petipa could have him rework "Swan Lake." Petipa's conductor Riccardo Drigo arranged it and his assistant Lev Ivanov choreographed the second act. The first time it was performed was at Tchaikovsky's memorial.
© 2013 Idaho Statesman