Dayton Performing Arts Alliance presents Tchaikovsky’s iconic classic at Schuster

A study in contrasts, Nathaly Prieto is the Black Swan, Margot Aknin is the White Swan.

by Arnecia Patterson  |  Photos by Scott Robbins

The Dayton Ballet’s founding in 1937 makes it one of the oldest ballet companies in the country, so it would be reasonable to think that a classic, well-known ballet like Swan Lake holds a standard place in an eighty-year-old repertoire. However, the company’s early founding was based on new dances—The Experimental Group for Young Dancers was its original name. In the late 1980s when its artistic director at that time, Stuart Sebastian, choreographed Swan Lake and broke away from the company’s reputation as one that performed new works, it undertook Tchaikovsky’s 19th century full-length beauty. His version, with sets and costumes by Sebastian’s go-to artisans (set designer Miguel Romero and costume designer Mimi Maxmen) followed the conventional storyline and was last performed in 1994.

On Friday and Saturday, Mar. 9-10 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Mar. 11 at 3 p.m., Dayton Ballet will perform the visually and aurally stunning classic Swan Lake; it is the third full-length story ballet this season. Even though the current version, choreographed by Hong Kong Ballet’s artistic director, Septime Webre, has been in the Dayton Ballet repertoire for over a decade, this will mark Swan Lake’s first performance on the Mead stage of the Schuster Center to live music by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of artistic director and conductor, Neal Gittleman. Tchaikovsky’s music for this ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, is legendary. As such, the performance receives dual billing as part of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra’s Masterworks Series.

Swan Lake’s choreography has been subject to the revisionist applications of countless artists, and grand spectacles created by an opulent list of dance makers—Dayton Ballet’s is no exception. Webre’s updated narrative blends the dance’s traditional swan scenes with a newer setting in the halls of New York’s early 20th century aristocracy. To assure the fine points of his conjoining are seamless, Sharon Neumeister, the company’s rehearsal assistant, will serve in the role of répétiteur. In addition to working with all of the principal characters, Neumeister is setting and coaching the role she danced on dancer Margot Aknin who is cast as the white swan, Odette. The beloved classic’s history in the Dayton Ballet’s repertoire has shifted from an early breakaway from its experimental roots, to an in-house, passing of the torch in which young talent Aknin makes her debut in the role of Odette, and Neumeister, who danced the role a decade ago, oversees its capturing.

Familiarity Breeds Artistry

Sharon Neumeister (nee Lancaster) knew little about the Dayton Ballet in her 1998 New York audition for former director, Dermot Burke. A native of Poughkeepsie, NY, she moved to New York City at age seventeen to study at the Joffrey Ballet School. It was a successful move. Eventually, she landed an apprentice position with the company and embarked on tour, but the company’s precarious financial position put a damper on the headiness of performing in theatres throughout the country. “After Joffrey I wanted to dance for a company that was stable. A place where I could grow and put roots down,” she recalled. Her choice to dance in Dayton lasted ten years, from 1998-2008. Dayton Ballet provided the artistic growth that comes with dancing in myriad roles created by a range of choreographers. Afterwards, she became ballet mistress under Dermot Burke, took two years off, and returned as rehearsal assistant under the current artistic director, Karen Russo Burke. Her responsibility to restage many of the works set on the company during her years as a dancer includes Webre’s Peter Pan, Romeo and Juliet, and
Swan Lake.

The role of rehearsal assistant requires Neumeister to see the bigger picture in a ballet—to know the music, timing, entrances and exits, and choreography. She is familiar with how Webre’s new setting intersects with the traditional swan scenes and impacts the narrative and imagery. “This version,” she explained, “instead of slowing down to do peasant scenes, ramps up for the party scenes. The whole stage is full-on, athletic dancing. That helps to keep the audience engaged and enjoying it.”

That engagement is set, circa 1912, in New York society amidst the lives of the wealthy who may have owned a townhouse on Fifth Ave. Siegfried (the prince in the conventional version) is a young man whose life is controlled by his loving, yet domineering mother. She has an alignment with a gentleman friend, von Rothbart. The dichotomy between her loving sincerity for her son and overbearing behavior towards him sets up the black and white context of the familiar swan scenes that audiences know. Those scenes remain traditionally staged and appear in Siegfried’s dreams as representations of his conflicting feelings about his mother. “The 19th century choreography is the same traditional choreography that everyone is going to look for. The white swan pas de deux, the swan corps in long, romantic tutus,”
Neumeister recounted.

The logistics of Swan Lake, its traditional scenes and updated setting, are unlike the focus of one iconic role Neumeister danced in 2007, Odette—the white swan. On a stage filled with swans, Odette is the audience’s focus: her balances, arms, and turns; the variation and pas de deux. The pressure is on Neumeister now, as it was when she was cast. It presents its own dichotomy.

As the répétiteur, Neumeister is also charged with honing in on the specifics of what makes Odette one of the most highly regarded characters in dance. Her dual perspectives, as both dancer and coach, are challenging; yet, there are fine points about the physicality that are not up to the coach. They are up to the dancer, and this year the dancer is Margot Aknin. She is in the midst of a second season with the Dayton Ballet filled with opportunities. Earlier she danced the role of Daisy in The Great Gatsby; now she is learning the dance about which every student ballerina dreams.

Taking Center Stage

For Margot Aknin those dreams were fed by a performance of Swan Lake in which Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes, of American Ballet Theatre, danced the roles of Odette and Siegfried. Aknin was a student in the summer program at American Ballet Theatre. As she prepares for the biggest role in her career, the experience remains etched in her mind’s eye. “I remember when I saw Julie Kent dance the role, and my memory of her is how it was pure and clean. Nothing extra was needed to add to her perfect, clean technique,” recalled Aknin.

Perfect technique is a result of practice. Accomplished professional dancers engage in the practice of repeating the same steps, in class, most days a week for decades in order to develop expertise in their domain. They subject themselves to correction, and submit to a centuries-old standard taught by someone with experience. The technique of the white swan is paired with artistry, particularly in the port de bras. The wing-like quality and its use is not standard fare in a ballet class. In fact, it falls outside of classical training in ballet arm deportment.  For Odette, the softly rounded curvature and lengthened stretch of exactly placed arms taught in class become barely perceptible flickering or large, controlled undulations that signal what she feels
when onstage.

The ballerina who dances the role has to reconcile the movement repeated every day with the weight of Odette’s emotion in order to render the role convincingly. Aknin is now learning the difference between seeing Odette and being her. “What I like about her is the emotion behind the steps. She balances, but is it just about the balance? No. It’s stillness. To the audience it’s a swan being still. That takes it past just a balance,”
she reflected.

Odette’s emotions and how they weight the dancer’s transformation from woman to swan is, arguably, the most persuasive part of what makes her believable. When she has to interact with Siegfried, according to Aknin, she is sometimes frightened. As Odette looks around and wonders where he is, she has to maintain her birdlike quality in order to be compelling. Because she is a swan, her ballet persona and relationship with Siegfried is uncommon. Aknin captured her sense of it, “She is not Aurora or Juliet, a girl or a queen. I don’t want the audience to watch a woman be a swan. I want them to be captivated by the swan.”

Control is another aspect of Odette’s transformation that is less emotional, more physical, and equally present if she is to be believed. Odile, the black swan, (Nathaly Prieto) is known as the more physical role in Swan Lake. Her 32 fouetté (whipping turns) done to up-tempo music distinguish her. Conversely, the white swan pas de deux is long, slow, and controlled. Odette’s quiet only appears to be still. Neumeister concurs with Aknin; this artistry makes the role unique—the ability to maintain the swan feel. “Technically, the black swan is harder. She has the 32 fouetté turns,” she said. “Odette is always floating and breathing. The arms have to look like they have about fifty joints in them in order to move with a controlled undulation. It’s not something we
study normally.”

Years of study on opposite coasts (Aknin is from California) bring the women together in the Midwest to a ballet company that has already afforded both enviable moments in their chosen careers. The similarities are obvious: as young dancers they dreamed of dancing the role of Odette. With the dream comes the pressure of its reputation. A pressure that Aknin is wholly aware of as she prepares her debut. Access to videos of famous renditions of the role, posted online, and her own memories intensify her desire to meet the challenges. “I now know that it’s so much deeper a role when you are dancing it. In order to make it look like my memory of Julie Kent’s clean lines, there has to be a lot going on inside. I bring that inspiration to the studio,” she said. As for Neumeister, that dream has been realized, and she is there to see the same happen for Aknin. “I give her everything I can with input, coaching, and guidance, then let her take it and do it her way. Every dancer has her own nuances and style. I have to make sure that I am letting her take it and fly.”

Swan Lake is at the Schuster Center, One West Second St. Dayton, on Friday, March 9 and Saturday March 10 at 8 pm, and Sunday, March 11 at 3 pm. Tickets for Swan Lake are $17 to $72 and are available at Ticket Center Stage (937) 228-3630 or online at Senior, teacher and student discounts available at box office. For more information visit

“Behind the Ballet,” a Q&A with dancers that gives audiences the opportunity to learn more about the life of a dancer with Dayton Ballet, will follow each performance in the theatre.

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at

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