Cynthia Gregory doesn’t remember how many times she danced “Swan Lake’s” leading role during almost three decades as “America’s prima ballerina assoluta.” (To quote one of her former partners, the legendary Rudolf Nureyev.)
But she remembers every step.
And she shares those memories with Nevada Ballet Theatre — and local audiences — staging Act II of “Swan Lake,” part of NBT’s “A Tribute to Tchaikovsky” this weekend at The Smith Center.
In addition to the section of “Swan Lake” that Gregory considers “the gem” of the ballet, the NBT program showcases Act III of a second Tchaikovsky classic, “Sleeping Beauty.”
Both ballets emerged in late 19th-century Russia, where composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky — and choreographers Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa — collaborated on a series of beloved ballets. (Perhaps the most beloved, “The Nutcracker,” returns to The Smith Center next month.)
“The steps live in a vault in the minds of every dancer,” says NBT artistic director James Canfield. “We’re bringing them back to life.”
But “there are so many ancestors it’s like (the game of) Telephone,” he says, with “people interpreting what they heard.” Consequently, having someone like Gregory — who not only knows the choreography but understands its nuances — provides a crucial perspective, he adds.
Gregory’s “Swan Lake” set “the standard that was created in this country by an American ballerina,” Canfield says. And for NBT’s dancers, “to have a swan in front of them, that has been noted worldwide as one of the greatest of all time,” enables them to experience “Swan Lake’s” legacy first-hand.
Watching NBT dancers rehearse “Swan Lake” sequences, Gregory, 67, radiates a quietly commanding presence. Perched on a folding chair, her long arms swoop gracefully as she comments on the run-through.
“Make that top arm a little straighter,” she coaches one of the dancers. “Don’t let me see too much elbow.”
A few moments later, she reminds them that “you can’t see your feet — you’ll have a tutu there. Just make sure you’re focusing.”
And, Gregory cautions, that focus requires “a little bit more” than just the steps, warning the dancers against in-performance complacency, urging them to find “something to spark you up. Really, just listen to the music — and that music will tell you.”
A final bit of advice: “If you think you’re doing too much, you’re not.”
It’s the voice of experience — one of the dancers applaud at rehearsal’s end. Gregory, NBT’s artistic coach, applauds right back.
“Swan Lake” made Gregory a star in 1967 when she danced the leading role with American Ballet Theatre, first on tour and then a few months later in New York, marking her emergence as a prima ballerina.
No wonder it’s her favorite ballet.
Even so, “I don’t want anybody to do what I did,” Gregory says during a post-rehearsal interview. “You should have a dialogue with yourself as you’re dancing. You have to have that in your head.”
Dancers “need the tension,” she adds, instinctively turning her head to match the angle of her outstretched arms. “That’s the hardest thing to find: the tension. It has to be everything pulled together — and it’s hard to put that into words.”
This being ballet, however, actions speak far louder than words.
“You have to remind them, because they tend to forget,” Gregory reflects. “You have to let everything else go and listen to that music.”
Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” score “is especially gorgeous, I think,” she adds. “And it really goes perfectly with each dance.”
“Swan Lake’s” Act II focuses on Odette (danced by Alissa Dale), a princess cursed by an evil sorcerer (danced by Barrington Lohr), who’s transformed her — and her friends — into swans. Only at night, by the side of an enchanted lake (formed by Odette’s mother’s tears) do the swans become human again. Unless, of course, Prince Siegfried (danced by Steven Goforth) falls in love with Odette, thereby breaking the spell. (Sorry, “Black Swan” fans, but black swan Odile — alias the sorcerer’s daughter — doesn’t show up until “Swan Lake’s” third act.)
Such full-length ballets as “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” are “the most-known — but also the most expensive” for dance companies to produce, Canfield says. “Can we do a full ‘Sleeping Beauty’ or ‘Swan Lake’? No — our size doesn’t allow it.”
Presenting excerpts from each ballet, he adds, allows NBT “to bring the legends and history to life.”
During Gregory’s stellar career — which included 26 years with American Ballet Theatre — she also danced “Sleeping Beauty’s” title role, Aurora.
But Jane Wood-Smith and Pamela Robinson-Harris of Salt Lake City’s Ballet West are staging NBT’s “Sleeping Beauty” excerpt, “Aurora’s Wedding.”
Unlike “Swan Lake’s” Act II, where the story begins, the third act of “Sleeping Beauty” is where the story resolves, Canfield says — after the spell has been broken, setting the stage for “a happy ending, leaving the audience on an uplifting note.”
Part of that happy ending, of course, involves the royal wedding of Princess Aurora (danced by Mary LaCroix) and charming Prince Florimund. He’ll be danced by guest artist Jared Angle of the New York City Ballet, who visited The Smith Center in March as part of the NYCB Moves tour. (NBT’s Grigori Arakelyan, who was initially cast as the prince, has been sidelined by tendinitis, according to Canfield.)
In addition to the happy couple, “Sleeping Beauty’s” third act includes several fanciful fairy-tale guests, including Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. (Friday morning, NBT will perform “Aurora’s Wedding” for more than 1,500 local students at The Smith Center.)
Dancing in the Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall “makes a huge difference” to NBT’s dancers, in Gregory’s view. “It just raises the level of the way they’re presented,” she says. “I think they’re dancing better.”
And what about the audiences watching their dancing?
“Just let it sweep over them,” Gregory suggests. “There’s something about the pull of the music and the beauty of the choreography — all those swans in their white tutus and white feathers.”
In short, “be open to it,” Gregory says. “If they just feel the love and the sweetness and the tragedy of it all …”
Contact reporter Carol Cling at email@example.com or 702-383-0272.