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Ballet Victoria prepare to unfold its wings with Swan Lake

Destrooper boldly bridges classical and contemporary with ambitious small troupe production
Dancers of Ballet Victoria and students from the Ballet Victoria Conservatory. Artistic director Paul Destrooper stands in the middle in red. (Samantha Duerksen/Black Press Media)

One might say Paul Destrooper is taking a chance on directing Swan Lake. It’s normally a repertoire done by big companies, as he said, and Ballet Victoria is considered a small one, with 12 dancers, essentially.

But Destrooper is not one to shy away from taking chances. He’s done other traditionally big productions, and he’s known to pull at the threads of classical ballet, bringing in rock music, or incorporating martial arts, such as in an “absolutely fierce” battle scene in Romeo and Juliet. So it seems he is ready to take on the challenge of Swan Lake head-on.

“It’s going to have the artistry of Swan Lake that any international company does. That’s my goal anyway. Whether I succeed or not, time will tell,” he says. “It’s a big beast and everybody’s going to compare it.”

As one of the most popular ballets of all time, Destrooper is very familiar with the work, having danced it with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Alberta Ballet as a principal dancer. But with his version, audiences can expect something non-traditional.

Destrooper is making it his own, using the love story between the prince and the swan but creating a “completely different narrative” in two acts rather than four.

To create the sense of a large production with fewer dancers, he uses the corps de ballet as a “lead role” – having six dancers, for instance, doing a soloist part together.

“It requires a completely different level of technique and awareness, and it’s something that people are always blown away by.”

In Swan Lake, the corps de ballet will play a group of cygnets (little swans), which used to be young women until cursed by the evil sorcerer Rothbart to only return to their human form at night.

Drawing upon the powerfulness of swans will also create a dynamic choreographic experience on stage. “They’re graceful but they’re fierce,” Destrooper says. “The dancers here … I think that they have that natural embodiment of the swan. It’s perfect for a ballet dancer and I think that’s why, historically, it’s been one of the most popular ballets in the world.”

In Swan Lake, a prince has come of age to marry and is supposed to choose a princess. “But he actually wants to marry for love,” Destrooper says. One day on a swan hunt, the prince freezes when the swan in his sights transforms into a beautiful maiden named Odette. She explains she is the victim of the evil sorcerer Rothbart’s spell, fated to only return to human form at night. The spell will only be broken if one who has never loved before swears to love her forever.

Destrooper’s version is unique in that Odette is the young prince’s best friend from childhood, so he knows the swan when he meets her.

The rest of the ballet allows Destrooper to have fun playing with the theme of light and dark. When the prince is tricked into swearing his eternal love to the black swan, the daughter of the evil Rothbart, Desrooper’s talent for combining traditional with contemporary has a chance to shine.

In the pas de deux of the white swan, the choreography will stay more true to tradition. “It’s very challenging and the dancers love to do the traditional choreography because it speaks to their level of technique and artistry.” But with the black swan, it will be “very exciting choreography.”

And while traditionally the white swan is all “romance and soft and lyrical,” in this version, Destrooper will highlight her power, staying true to the more balanced nature of light and dark inside everyone.

Whether or not the prince will win the final battle with Rothbart and save his true love, or whether they both jump in the lake and drown together, Destrooper has yet to decide.

While Destrooper finds the theme of arranged marriage in the piece a “bit archaic,” he thinks audiences will be drawn to the romanticism and theme of passionate commitment, plus the haunting lure of “impossible love.”

“Not just going from one fish to the next, on some of these apps. … I think maybe people are kind of yearning for that lately: of the real commitment, love, that really means something. That you’d die for it.”

And of course, the “power and aesthetic and beauty” of this timeless piece.

“It’s the universal theme of light and dark, love and evil. I think those are timeless human concepts that everybody loves to play with, and the music is absolutely brilliant.”

One thing is certain; Destrooper is breaking the spell of tradition, reviving Swan Lake in a way that will leave ballet fans talking.

Swan Lake runs May 17-18 at Royal Theatre. Tickets start at $34 at

READ MORE: Journey through music in Victoria

Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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