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Who Says ‘Swan Lake’ Isn’t for Kids?

Pacific Northwest Ballet stages the classic ballet and you won’t be disappointed

Published on: February 04, 2018

Pacific Northwest Ballet company dancers in Kent Stowell’s 'Swan Lake,' running Feb. 2-11. Photo: Angela Sterling

Like many kids of my generation, an animated movie introduced me to “Swan Lake.” 

“The Swan Princess” took the plot of the classic ballet and sanitized it. Not that I knew it as a 4-year-old. All I remember is the beautiful woman who turned into a swan, the handsome prince who loved her and the happily ever after they earned.

So imagine my surprise 23 years later when I learned that “Swan Lake” doesn’t actually end well. Blame my ignorance of the ballet, but I honestly didn’t know how the newest production at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) would turn out. I figured it wouldn’t be nearly as happy as a cartoon but that the lovers don’t end up together at all? I didn’t expect to spend my Saturday night sobbing.

What luck, though, that my crash course in ballet came courtesy of PNB. The company outdoes itself in its latest production, a nine-day run of “Swan Lake.” Every detail wows, from the set design (courtesy of the legendary Ming Cho Lee) to the costumes (thank Paul Tazewell of “Hamilton” for those) to, of course, the glorious music and dance of PNB.

But isn’t ballet boring?

I brought my baggage to the ballet. Wouldn’t it be boring? And so long (just under three hours). Plus, nobody talks, right? Would I even get it?

My doubts began to fade as soon as I walked into McCaw Hall. The place was packed. Every level buzzed with fellow attendees grabbing drinks, reading programs and chatting about the event ahead. These people, I realized, were hyped.

Soon I saw why. The curtain at McCaw literally sparkles, the dark red fabric studded with crystals that catch the light just so. Magic, I realized, was the order of the night.

I’ll skip the specifics of “Swan Lake” as, I assume, you’re better educated than I about ballet’s most famous production. (If you do need a refresher, PNB kindly provides one in the program.) Instead, note this instead:

  • Timing is everything. The show offers well-placed breaks, with one intermission following the first act and another after the second. These short breaks allow you to get up and stretch your legs so that by the time acts three and four arrive, you’re ready for the dramatic finish.
  • Kids were everywhere. And they were having a ball. Every intermission I saw wanna-be ballerinas twirling in the aisles, mirroring the moves we’d just witnessed on stage. While I longed to spot just one little boy practicing his pirouettes — the younger audience tended to skew tiara-clad girl — the point was clear: Kids liked it, too. (If you’re looking for even more traditional family fare, PNB stages “Snow White” next month.)
  • Ballet fans come to play. I assumed the audience at a ballet would be reserved, noses high as they watched for misplaced steps and sloppy pas de trois. How wrong I was. It wasn’t like we were doing the wave, but the cheers for a particularly stunning move rivaled those of a Hawks game. We even booed the bad guy.

The bottom line

So, should you go to “Swan Lake”? Yes. More than that, we should make a point to go to more ballets. Back in 2013, PNB admitted that it loses money on every production that isn’t “The Nutcracker.” 

Something tells me those numbers haven’t changed in five years. The program for “Swan Lake” was riddled with politely worded cries for help. Donate here! Subscribe now! 

True, I didn’t buy a PNB membership at the end of the night, but I did leave with a vow to return. Ballet, I realized, wasn’t the problem. It was the sanitized versions I’d been settling for. Unless we want our kids to grow up thinking “The Swan Princess” is all there is, we’ve got to show up for the real deal. We’ve got to go to the ballet.

If you go...

When“Swan Lake” plays through Feb. 11

Where: McCaw Hall at Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle

Ages: While younger children may not get the plot, I saw kids as young as 5 enjoying the show. And while “Swan Lake” does deal with loss and love, there’s nothing graphic or explicit in the production.

Length: Run time is three hours with two intermissions.

Cost: $37 up to $142

Parking: Try one of the nearby parking garages a few blocks from Seattle Center.

Tip: The principal casting changes each show so be sure to look ahead if there’s a particular Odette and Prince Siegfried whom you’d like to see.

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