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Ballet merges with Yup'ik dance to give 'Swan Lake' an Alaska twist

Mike Dunham
Dancers Reed Souther and Nicole Maple rehearse for "The Swan," an Alaska Dance Theatre production. Resident choreographer Gillmer Duran of Eugene Ballet Company is at right. MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News

At the apex of dance stands -- en pointe -- "Swan Lake." "Nutcracker" may have more familiar music and "Don Quixote" the more spectacular leaps. But when most people think of ballet, lithe (and astonishingly athletic) female bodies gracefully imitating great white birds are what come to mind. It is the classic to which all others in the genre must be compared.

A new "Alaska" version of "Swan Lake" will debut Friday and Saturday in the Discovery Theatre. Alaska Dance Theatre's "Qug'yuq" (the Yup'ik word for swan) retells the story of a girl sinisterly transformed into a bird and the frantic love she shares with a human who is unaware of the magic conjured up to keep them apart.

This time, however, the swan and her swain come from a Yup'ik village. Their nemesis, intent on keeping the girl for himself, is no one less than the powerful trickster, Raven. The usual balletic pirouettes and plies are augmented by Yup'ik Eskimo drumming and dance.

"We wanted to introduce a story ballet, but we knew we didn't want to restage 'Swan Lake,' " said Codie Costello, the executive director of Alaska Dance Theatre. "But reading through it again, we began to think about how we could merge it with Alaska Native stories."

The thread of humans transforming to animals and vice versa, for instance, is a recurring feature in both European fairy tales and Native lore.

The result was a collaboration with the Alaska Native Heritage Center, which supplied thematic elements along with traditional Yup'ik dancers, re-envisioning the choreography as well as the story.

"We took as a base the classical 'Swan Lake' and gave it our own twist," said Alaska Dance Theatre's resident choreographer, Gillmer Duran.

It's hardly the first time that directors have dived into "Swan Lake." Tchaikovsky himself repeatedly adjusted his original score. His brother rewrote the story to give it a happy ending. There have been animated film versions of the tale. Cheery "Swan Lakes." Obsessively morbid "Swan Lakes." "Swan Lakes" set in a Victorian insane asylum. Matthew Bourne's stupendously successful all-male "Swan Lake." And, at the moment, a hit movie, "Black Swan," which recapitulates much of the story in a film about -- what else? -- ballet.

Even the origins seem unsure. Internet sources usually cite a folk story written down by one Johann Karl August Musaus around 1780. But all say that that story, "The Stolen Veil," only marginally presents the outline of the grand romance in Tchaikovsky's ballet.

The sources appear to be quoting each other; none directly quote the presumed original. I was unable to find a copy of Musaus in Anchorage or an English translation of "The Stolen Veil" online. It may have gone out of print, at least in English, before the ballet hit the stage.

It's hard to tell whether Musaus' "Veil" was one of his original creations or something he copied from other sources. His work as a folklorist, particularly with regard to Nordic legends, may have been used by Wagner in his "Ring of the Nibelung." But Musaus personally preferred to write satire.

Some of those essays in irony may be more readily availably. But they're no more ironic that the fact that Musaus, of Jena, Germany, the hub of Protestant piety, studied to be a preacher. He had a parish lined up when scandal erupted. Not embezzlement, lechery or suspect doctrine. No, what knocked him off his legs was persistent gossip that he had at some point -- horrors! -- danced. It's an astonishing twist in the career of the presumed originator of the world's most famous ballet.

Which brings us back to the "twist" at hand -- the melding of Western and Yup'ik dance styles. "It's actually pretty freaky to picture the two of them blending together," said Duran.

Freaky but not unprecedented. The multitalented Ossie Kairaiuak, who will lead the Heritage Centers drummers and dancers, has previously collaborated with Alaska Dance Theatre choreographers.

The final rehearsals to bring it all together won't start until this week; a number of Alaska Dance Theatre performers have been in Eugene, Ore., to work on new material for the company, Duran said.

Last year the Anchorage group formed a partnership with the Eugene Ballet Company, from when Duran hails. Some results of that partnership will be on display in "Qug'yuq."

Costellos said a core of eight professional or apprentice soloists from Anchorage and Eugene would be joined by about 50 students from Alaska.

Alaska Dance Theatre is taking some new steps with "Qug'yuq." It's an evolution of the company's "Favorite Tales and Stories" showcase, which has previously been presented at their dance studios in Midtown.

"It's grown so much over the past few years that we wanted to move it downtown," said Costello.

And, while previous Alaska Dance Theatre shows have used minimum sets, or no set at all, "Qug'yuq" will feature a full stage setting now under construction at Anchorage Opera. The costumes, by Anastasia Semak, who also designed the set, will feature kuspuk shapes.

A synopsis provided in a press release notes some of the main story points.

Tulukaruk, the Raven, entranced by the beautiful Qug'yuq, transforms her into a trumpeter swan under the glow of the northern lights.

A young villager named Ciuqnaq falls in love with her when he spots her in the bevy. (That's what you call a bunch of swans a-swimming. On land, they're a herd of swans; flying, it's a wedge of swans.)

There are some additional enchantments involving various wild animals, a big fight and village scenes where much of the Yup'ik dance will be featured.

Elsewhere, in lieu of the familiar Tchaikovsky music, Duran is using excerpts from Mahler's Symphonies No. 2 and 10.

And does it resolve joyfully or in tragedy? We're not telling.

But the creators, at least, are hoping for a happy ending -- or a happy beginning.

"We would like to do some fresher work in the future," said Duran. "I'm really interested in that. So hopefully this will be a good start."


By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com