Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Return of the Swan

Lesley Rausch as Odette in Pacific Northwest Ballet's past production of  Swan Lake
photo @ Lindsay Thomas


Early Spring sunshine streams into a small Pacific Northwest Ballet studio, casting shadows on two dancers, one in dark sweat pants and a tee shirt, the other dressed in a purple leotard, stiff white tutu and pointe shoes.

They’re rehearsing a pas de deux from the classic ballet Swan Lake, under the watchful eye of PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal. Veteran company member Lesley Rausch portrays the famous White Swan, Odette. Her partner, James Kirby Rogers, is Prince Siegfried, smitten by Odette’s beauty when he encounters her with a flock of fellow swans on a moonlit lake.

Boal starts a recording of Tchaikovsky’s familiar score, and Rausch and Rogers begin a delicate courtship dance. They circle one another, warily at first, then spiraling closer. At last, Rogers steps behind Rausch and wraps her in his arms, gently folding her limbs across her chest. When they pull apart, Rausch’s arms extend behind her, like a swan’s wings, her fingers fluttering like feathers in a breeze. Rogers lifts the ballerina up over his head, once, twice and a third time, as if she weighs no more than, well, a bird. 

When the ethereal seven-minute duet ends, both dancers bend over, gulping in air through the black face masks they wear to ward off Covid.

For so many ballerinas, dancing Swan Lake’s Odette and her evil doppelganger, the Black Swan, Odile, is a career pinnacle. It’s not simply that the roles are technically demanding, a tour-de-force when performed well; it’s also the fact that the ballerina must learn the choreography and then distinguish each role dramatically for the audience (if not for the love-sick Prince who, somehow, mistakes Odile’s flamboyance for the gentle grace of his love, Odette).

James Kirby Rogers and Lesley Rausch in Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Swan Lake
                                                        photo @ Angela Sterling

Whether it’s portraying the agony of a woman captured in swan form, or whipping off Odile’s jaw-droppingly difficult 32 fouetté turns, this dual role allows a dancer to demonstrate everything she’s mastered over her career.

Lesley Rausch and her husband, former PNB dancer Batkhurel Bold, in Swan Lake
photo @ Angela Sterling

Four years ago, when PNB last presented this ballet, Rausch had the opportunity to perform Odette/Odile on opening night. “That was the fulfillment of every childhood dream I ever had,” she says. “I didn’t even realize it until it was happening.”

Two years ago, when COVID forced the world to shut down, Rausch wasn’t sure she’d make it back onstage, let alone get a chance to star in this ballet again.

Of course, ballet dancers weren’t the only ones affected by the March, 2020 pandemic closures. All but people deemed to be essential workers were sent home to puzzle out how to set up offices at their dining room tables; to squabble over laptops and internet bandwidth with their family members. 

While many of us were able to conduct business as (almost) usual, ballet dancers floundered, wondering how to keep their bodies and minds ready to perform if and when they were called back to work. PNB offered daily Zoom classes to its company members, but Rausch and many of her peers sometimes found it hard to muster the enthusiasm for remote dancing.

“I have a lot of good self-motivation normally,” Rausch says. “But there were times I just couldn’t make myself do ballet.”

Rausch felt detached from the online classes, and she didn’t have the studio space at home to move the way she wanted and needed to. Beyond space issues, like so many of us, Rausch found the daily pandemic news to be emotionally grueling. Although she felt fortunate to be financially stable, and that PNB continued to provide health insurance to all its workers, seeing the toll Covid was taking on so many people around the world was sobering.

PNB’s pandemic closure dragged on through the summer of 2020, the longest non-dancing period Rausch had experienced since she started ballet lessons as a little girl in Columbus, Ohio. She practiced Pilates daily, trying to keep her muscles toned and healthy. And she relished the time with her husband, retired PNB dancer Batkhurel Bold, who works in the hospitality industry now. Together, they explored Seattle on foot, trying to make the most of their downtime together. But dancing a full-length ballet requires specific stamina and training. The longer Rausch was away from the studio, the more concerned she became about how she’d regain what she was losing.

Batkhurel Bold with his wife Lesley Rausch. Photo @ Angela Sterling

Although the pandemic maintained its grip on us, by mid-2020, PNB had decided to go ahead with a new artistic season, albeit digitally. Most (but not all) of the dancers returned to the Phelps Center studios, where they were segregated into small pods of four to six dancers. Everyone was—and still is--masked, and tested for Covid on a regular basis, but they were dancing again, which Rausch didn’t take for granted. 

(By the way, the challenge of dancing in a mask can’t be overlooked. Imagine how you feel when you take a brisk uphill walk in your mask; sometimes it feels like you just can’t take in enough oxygen. Now think about dancers, who spend hours each day in strenuous activity, constantly masked.)

Lesley Rausch relaxing at Seattle Center, September 2021
photo @ Marcie Sillman

Although Rausch was thrilled to be back in the studios, even masked, it was by no means ballet as usual. Covid protocols dictated that only dancers who lived together could touch one another in the studio or onstage, or do the kind of partnering a ballet like Swan Lake requires.

“We’re very used to touching all the time,” she says. “It’s a building where people hug frequently, where corrections are hands-on. This (Covid protocols) was a seismic shift, and it was scary for us all.”

Lesley Rausch and former PNB partner Jerome Tisserand rehearsing Swan Lake in 2018.
photo @ Lindsay Thomas

Beyond the Covid protocols, the journey back to back to ballet-readiness wasn’t easy, particularly for older dancers like Rausch, who turned 40 in late 2021. The art form’s physical demands frequently force dancers to leave the profession by their late 30’s. A few, like Rausch’s former colleague Noelani Pantastico, hang on into their 40’s. (Pantastico retired this February at age 41). 

Rausch found the work to retrain her body to be grueling; after a day in the studio, she often went home and just cried from the pain of, for example, building back the strength in her feet.

“You know, when I was younger, I could walk in off the street, slap on my pointe shoes and go right into rehearsal,” she muses. “I can’t even imagine that now!” Rausch is far more aware of her body’s strengths and weaknesses than she was 20 years ago, and much more cautious about potential injuries, so she’s been slow and methodical about her re-training.

Eight months into this artistic season, Rausch is nursing a sore back, which kept her out of two productions earlier this year. Bolstered by a brace, she’s thrown herself into Swan Lake rehearsals, determined to be back onstage in the coveted dual role. “Every day is different,” she muses. “Some are better than others.”

Every morning, before she even arrives at PNB’s Seattle Center studios, she spends a couple of hours preparing her body for the physical toll the full day of rehearsals will exact on her. “I take a very, very, very, hot shower,” she laughs. Rausch then runs through a series of Pilates exercises, focusing especially on her back. But she also relies heavily on the expertise of PNB physical therapist Boyd Bender and Laura Bannister, a PT at Avant Studio.

“I feel like I’m stronger after a year and a half away. I’ve tended to old injuries,” Rausch says. “I definitely feel more confidence that I’m able to do my job.”

Beyond the physical re-adjustments, Rausch found PNB to be a very different dance company when she returned in August, 2020. More than a half dozen of her contemporaries decided to retire or leave Seattle during the pandemic, including her longtime stage partner Jerome Tisserand, who danced her Prince Siegfried in PNB’s 2018 Swan Lake production. 

Tisserand's departure was wrenching for Rausch, who had built up a level of comfort and trust with him after years dancing together. Now she’s working to build that stage relationship with James Kirby Rogers. In rehearsal they work on small nuances: how Rogers can help her into a turn, or where he should hold her waist when he prepares to lift Rausch into the air.

James Kirby Rogers with Lesley Rausch, Otto Neubert in background
photo @ Angela Sterling for Pacific Northwest Ballet

Like Rogers, most of PNB’s new company members are much younger than Rausch. Although she’s one of only a handful of veterans at the company, Rausch isn’t ready to step away from a life that has defined her since childhood. She decided to be a ballerina when she was 10 years old, and her commitment hasn’t wavered. “I had a five-minute solo,” she recalls, “and I had this moment of just feeling like, ‘This is it!’ I just felt alive.”

She feels the same way today.

Aside from family, ballet has been the one constant in her life for more than 35 years. “It has been with me through the good and the bad, the ugly and beautiful. I think it starts to become even more cherished when you contemplate that it won’t be part of your life much longer.”

A year ago, Rausch wasn’t sure what the future held. She’s a certified Pilates instructor, and she’s been building her own business, but Rausch wasn’t quite ready to jump into this new pursuit full-time. When she learned that Peter Boal had included Swan Lake in the company’s current season line-up, it was the signal she needed. Rausch signed her contract, and prayed that her body would be up to the task ahead. 

Her gamble seems to have paid off. Not only does she get another chance to star in Swan Lake; she and Rogers will dance on opening night. It’s the opportunity Rausch could only dream about two years ago.

“Now I just feel gratitude for my body, that it can still do the things I ask it to do.”

And, while no one can predict the future with any certainty, Rausch is betting both on her body and her artistry to carry her into another year with PNB. Last month she decided to return for her 21st season in the company, to help celebrate PNB’s 50th anniversary.

Before then, audiences can see Lesley Rausch perform Odette/Odile on opening night of PNB’s production of Swan Lake, choreographed by Kent Stowell. The ballet runs April 15-24 at McCaw Hall.