The touch of a feather, the sound of their feet

MY favorite moment in all of ballet is when the swans first appear in ``Swan Lake.'' It's not their cloudlike lightness that gets me as they scud along the shore in the blue-purple-silver twilight. Nor is it the perfect unison they sometimes attain. It's the rattle of their feet in their toe shoes, with sometimes a squeak of resin. That and Tchaikovsky's swan theme, wary, urgent, tender, and above all, abundantly, romantically, sad. That makes my arm hair stand on end. I know I'm in a world where grand passions will be played out with harmony, symmetry, and grace. And true love will triumph over death and confusion.

I love the sound of their feet, because it's touching to me that these beautiful wraiths are actually human beings who weigh 100 pounds or so, stepping along on layers of satin, glue, leather, and cardboard, intent on telling an impossible fairy tale.

At my first ``Swan Lake,'' that noise was the only thing I liked. The premise of the ballet seemed preposterous. Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a princess who has been turned into a swan. His fidelity could break the spell. It doesn't; he falls for her double (not noticing she's wearing all black instead of all white) and breaks Odette's heart instead. The merest wobble in the corps can spoil the mood, and I do remember some galumphing among the cygnets. But I think what made me miss the romance was fear. There I was, a college junior with a review to write, and I had never seen ``Swan Lake'' before. A work that had existed for almost 100 years, based on a dance tradition at least 200 years old, and I had stopped taking ballet when I was 5.

Mercifully, I forget what I wrote, and since that awful evening I have continued to write about dance. I've gotten better at watching ``Swan Lake,'' with the help of some great dancers. I learned about their stamina. After rehearsing the love duet, the Odette from the Boston Ballet was dripping wet and panting. Odile rehearsals at the Pennsylvania Ballet looked like Olympic tryouts. Yet both were pictures of unruffled dominion onstage. I learned about conviction. Siegfried from the Bolshoi had only to hold up two fingers in a pledge of eternal love to put that whole production in sync.

And when I learned the history of ``Swan Lake,'' which is more fraught with peril than even Odette could imagine, I had to root for it.

Panned in Moscow in 1877, it would have been lost, had not Lev Ivanov rechoreographed the second act as an 1894 memorial to Tchaikovsky. Its success attracted his boss, Marius Petipa, and the next year in St. Petersburg the Maryinsky Theater presented its four-act ``Swan Lake.''

Came the revolution and the swan flew west with Nikolai Sergeyev, ballet master to the deposed czar. It languished in his notebooks till 1934, when he taught it to the Vic-Wells Ballet (later the Sadler's Wells, now the Royal Ballet). In this picture, Margot Fonteyn is introducing American audiences to the delights of swans and princes in four acts. Until the Sadler's Wells brought it over in 1949, only Act II was performed in the United States. Now ``Swan Lake'' lives happily ever after, in various forms, in many American ballet companies' repertoires.

IT was my ballet teacher (after 28 years I thought I'd give it another try) who finally got me swooped under the swan wings for good. A person of true grace, she is a ballerina inside the classroom and out, and she makes her students feel like the corps. So when she proposed a field trip to Montreal to see the Maryinsky Theater's descendants, the Kirov, on tour, we advanced beginners swung into action. Our accompanist's husband got the tickets. We organized car pools, wangled days off, contacted hotels and Montreal relatives. Balletomanes are a strenuous lot. We drove most of the day, changed, ate, and showed up at the theater on time.

Everyone predicted when in the ballet they would dissolve in tears. I said nothing. I never cry at the ballet; I might miss the next step. Also, an enormous hairdo rose in front of me like the pillar of cloud that guided the children of Israel through the desert. I had the same sinking feeling I had at my first visit to the Lake. I knew I was going to fail to be ravished.

The music started, and I settled down to wait for the swans. The hair pillar shifted when I did. It was hot. People talked. At least, I consoled myself, it's dark, so they won't see me not crying.

That's when it happened. Where I'd least expect it, in the dance the prince's friend and two women do to celebrate his birthday, came a moment so uplifting it parted the gloom, the heat, and the hair. They simply leaped at the exact same moment. But so high and so jauntily they looked like three Fred Astaires. It seemed they would jump right out of the painted palace courtyard for pure joy. I laughed, then I cried.

Odette and Siegfried were wonderful. And the swans looked as if each was moved by Odette's heartstrings. I could see why ``Swan Lake'' is much stronger than the imperial regime that fostered it. But it was that one joyous jump that has changed ``Swan Lake'' for me for good.

Now I am eager to be enfolded in all that silvery-purple, melancholy lake fog. I shudder happily as the corps clatters on. Happily, because I have been out the other side of this world of mystery, grace, and hard work on the heels of three remarkable dancers, and who knows? It could happen again.

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