‘Swan Lake’ could have been seniors’ swan song to collegiate ballet

Butler Ballet last performed ‘Swan Lake’ in the spring of 2016. Photo courtesy of Butler Arts Center.

MADDY KLINE | CULTURE EDITOR | mgkline@butler.edu 

At 8 p.m. on April 17, eager guests would have been hunting through the aisles to fill more than 2,000 seats within Clowes Memorial Hall. The air would have been thrumming with excitement and anticipation. The hum of hushed voices would have quieted as the lights turned low and the curtains pulled back. For the next two hours, the audience would have been transported to Butler Ballet’s interpretation of “Swan Lake.” 

But, none of this will happen. At least not this year. 

Written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in the late 1800s, “Swan Lake” is a well-known classical ballet that follows the love story of Prince Siegfried and Odette the white swan. Under the spell of a sorcerer, Odette must live as a swan by day and a human by night. After the two fall in love, a sorcerer enlists his daughter Odile — the black swan — to wreak havoc on their relationship. The ballet is known for its story, familiar music and universal themes of love and tragedy. 

“Swan Lake” is one of the many Butler Arts Center performances canceled due to coronavirus precautions and the extension of online learning through the rest of the semester. The cancelation brings disappointment, heartbreak and frustration to the entire dance department, but especially to seniors. 

Butler Ballet has not performed “Swan Lake” since the spring of 2016; this would have been the seniors’ first and last chance to perform it. 

Naomi Robinson and Francis Mihm, both senior dance and arts administration double majors, were cast as leading roles Odile and Siegfried, respectively. They had both performed “Swan Lake” in high school and were excited at the prospect of revisiting it with Butler’s interpretation. 

“My studio was pretty small and it was a full production, but there were a lot of children and younger kids in it,” Mihm said. “So I was really excited to be part of a huge, full semi-professional production of ‘Swan Lake.’ When the casting came out and I saw that I was going to be performing the lead role of Siegfried, I was ecstatic.”

A Butler Ballet dancer maintains a tight schedule to reflect the fast-paced realities of professional dance. They make the trek to Lilly Hall early in the morning and often don’t return until the evening. This schedule gets even tighter during production rehearsals. Typically, the physical, mental and emotional effort put into practice pays off with the elation of performing on stage for a mesmerized audience. This time, that end goal was taken away. 

Derek Reid, associate professor of dance, choreographed various dances for the performance.

“It’s a huge show, it’s probably the most well known classical ballet,” Reid said. “So everybody was really focusing their energy on that and then it’s gone. The idea that you can spend so much time focusing on learning and developing and refining creative ideas and then it just disappears, it’s incredibly disappointing and upsetting.

For dancers performing lead roles, like Robinson and Mihm, the rehearsal time is even stricter. Each of their roles has its unique set of challenges. Robinson must master the dark and alluring aura of the black swan, as well as the iconic 32 turns. Mihm must handle the physical strain of being in nearly every scene of the ballet, from start to finish. 

By the time we figured out it wasn’t going to happen, I had learned my whole part,” Robinson said. “I’d been working on those whenever I could — 32 consecutive fouettes. She’s a really serious character so I had to really embody what the black swan is; she’s tricking the prince into trying to marry her instead of the white swan, she’s working with the bad guys, and she’s sort of power-hungry and seductive. It’s a huge character to take on alongside the athletic part.”

During spring break, Butler students received an onslaught of coronavirus-related emails. On March 13, the university announced that all Butler Arts and Events Center programs were canceled through April 4. Butler Ballet was not sure if their show, scheduled for April 17, would go on. 

Reid did not foresee students and faculty making it back to campus in time to put on a show, though he tried to be hopeful. 

“When we got that email my thought was, ‘Gosh it’d be really nice, but even if we come back on April 4, getting a show up and running in two weeks would be tough,’” Reid said. “So I think I was skeptical of it happening right from the beginning.” 

Four days later, the university extended online learning through the rest of the semester, sealing Swan Lake’s fate. The cancelation was felt by everyone in the dance department, but came as an exceptional shock to seniors who never would have suspected they had already taken their last bow. 

Robinson said the notice was completely unexpected. As a senior, not only was “Swan Lake” her last performance, it was an opportunity for her to perform a large, well-known role. 

“I’m graduating and the competition is only going to be exponentially harder,” Robinson said. “It just feels like a huge opportunity that just kind of blew past.” 

The spring ballet is the last collegiate performance for Butler Ballet seniors; it is a chance to demonstrate the past four years of their work. 

“This was my first lead role in a ballet, so I was really disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to perform the role, and that I wouldn’t be able to show my fellow peers and my professors what I was capable of and what I could accomplish onstage,” Mihm said. “The rug was just pulled out from under us.”

Even as senior dancers finish their training in living rooms instead of studios — watching videos instead of collaboratively working with faculty — they are understanding of the situation everyone now faces. 

“I know everybody feels pretty blind sided; no one ever took that last class, I’m never going to be back here with these professors and with these people,” Robinson said. “And you know, with Butler Ballet, we’re in our freshman class, sophomore, junior, senior all together every single year. It’s pretty heartbreaking that it might be a long time before we can all come together. But to look back on all the memories, I think we had a great time.”

Like many of his students, Reid was once a Butler senior too, graduated in 1987. He said he understands the significance of this last semester and that final ceremony to honor students’ achievements. 

“You really work hard for four years and you work for the last show, and the last exam and that last moment you walk across the stage to get a diploma,” Reid said. “They realized that that was not going to happen for them. I see dancers everyday — obviously I’m still teaching via Zoom — and I think everyone is understanding that the process that the university went towards was really not a choice. That doesn’t lessen that feeling that you’re not going to do the thing that you love to do.”

For now, it is unclear if “Swan Lake” will be selected for next year — assuming the world is back in order. Butler Ballet rotates five classical ballets for its spring show, so it is very possible that “Swan Lake” will not take the stage at Clowes until 2025.

 

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