Mimes can summon the vision of a white-faced character using exaggerated hand movements to demonstrate being trapped in an invisible box.
Throughout history, though, ballet dancers have studied the ancient theatrical medium to tell complex, nuanced stories without words.
“It’s like a ballet sign language,” says Ariana Gonzalez, who performs this weekend in City Ballet’s “Tchaikovsky Spectacular,” a three-part concert that pays tribute to the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
“It’s a learned skill, and it can’t be pedestrian because you are in a tutu and toe shoes. You make it as natural and unmannered as possible. Obviously, you want to have elegance, but it has to be simple and understated. It’s like you are having a conversation with somebody.”
Gonzalez and ballerina Sumire Ito alternate the roles of Odette and Odile in “Swan Lake Act II” and the “Black Swan Pas de Deux,” the most dramatic sections of “Swan Lake” showcased in “Tchaikovsky Spectacular.”
A combination of dance and mime techniques work together to tell the story of Princess Odette, cursed by the sorcerer Baron von Rothbart (Brian Heil) to live by day as a swan.
Odette uses mime to stop Prince Siegfried (Iago Breschi) from shooting her on a hunting expedition and to help him understand that, with hands in the shape of a crown over her head, she is truly a princess.
Demanding classical ballet techniques emphasize the white swan’s vulnerability. Her arms undulate like wings from shoulders to fingertips, and her spine arches back in a way that looks as if she is submitting herself to her destiny.
The prince professes devotion, and the curse is about to be broken. That’s when Odile, the daughter of the sorcerer, executes her iconic seduction with 32 fouetté turns, which is a pirouette on one leg, powered by the extending leg whipping out and back.
“It signifies turning the prince into a madman by whipping up the energy in the room to seal the deal with him,” Gonzalez says. “She’s trying to blow him away.”
“Swan Lake” premiered in 1877 and continues to be listed among the top 10 most popular ballets.
The dueling ballerinas drive the story, but it’s the vision of the corps de ballet that defines this classic.
Across the stage, rows of swan maidens perform synchronized steps and a move that City Ballet resident choreographer Elizabeth Wistrich calls “swan arms.”
“The arm is above the head and the wrist and elbow is slightly bent,” explains Wistrich, who learned from professional mimes as a former soloist with the Stuttgart Ballet.
“Those arms have to be lined up and at the same angle. There are 16 girls who have to be all together. That takes a lot of practice.”
“Tchai Celebration,” the third segment of the “Tchaikovsky Spectacular,” is performed to the composer’s “The Seasons,” a dozen piano works representing the 12 months of the year.
Wistrich first choreographed the large company piece in 2007, and it showcases a cast of more than two dozen dancers.
She and her husband, Steven, co-direct City Ballet, and “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” is the first show of the company’s season, followed by “The Nutcracker” (Dec. 7-23), “Balanchine Masterpieces” (March 8-10), and “Mozart’s Requiem” (May 10-12).
“For me, Tchaikovsky is the ultimate composer for ballet,” Wistrich says.
“There are so many moments in his music that just speak to my soul. It’s wonderful to be able to present such a versified program. On the one hand, you have the very classical ‘Swan Lake’ that requires ultimate precision and control, along with the ‘Tchai Celebration,’ which is just that, a celebration of his music in a more contemporary style.”
City Ballet of San Diego presents “Tchaikovsky Spectacular: Swan Lake Act II — Black Swan Pas de Deux — Tchai Celebration”
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown
Phone: (858) 272-8663
A one-hour family show, with excerpts of the full production, is offered at 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $25. A free lecture begins 30 minutes before each performance.
Manna is a freelance writer.