Since she began her professional dance career in 1995, Principal Dancer Alexandra Kochis has danced six full length productions of Swan Lake, including two productions with Boston Ballet and four with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. She has danced a variety of roles, from a guest in the First Act and Swan Corps to the Pas de Trois, Cygnets, Neopolitan and Odette-Odile. As she prepares to play the Swan Queen for her fourth and final time, Alexa shares with us why this production is special to her and why you should go see it!
What has it been like to learn Swan Lake under the direction of Susan Jaffe, who was such an iconic Swan Queen?
The experience of being coached by Susan has been very inspiring. I love that she comes at the role of the Swan Queen from such a human perspective. She very much wants us to convey the underlying emotions — of uneasiness, trepidation, elation and, ultimately, betrayal and heartbreak — that make up Odette’s character arc throughout the story. Because, underneath it all, Odette is a woman who has been transformed into a swan, but she still thinks and feels and loves like you and I. Susan also has such a lush and full style that really encourages us to bend and move and use our entire bodies to fully depict the emotions we are trying to convey.
What part of the ballet holds a special place in your heart?
I feel like there are too many favorite moments to pick just one! I love the moment, in the second act adagio when Odette chooses to submit to falling in love with Seigfried. She clasps Seigfried’s hand to her cheek and turns to face him. It’s an intimate and still moment I get to share with my partner — in this case William Moore — in the midst of all this difficult technique. I love when we can speak to each other with our eyes and convey how full our hearts are across the vast expanses of the theater.
I love that the music builds to a frenzied crescendo during the coda of the second act. It is intensely empowering to stand in the wings as the corps de ballet charges across the stage in their final arabesque chugs and then, as I run out for my coda, the music hushes and the conductor seems to hover on my very breath.
I love dancing as Odile in the end of the third act pas de deux when Siegfried kneels before me and I know that I have succeeded in my seduction. I throw my head back in a movement full of wicked, maniacal triumph and I am soaring on this wave of physical endorphins and music-induced euphoria. It’s pretty incredible.
And, I always love dying on stage, so getting to hurl myself into the lake at the end of this marathon of a ballet that I have just run — that’s pretty great, too.
How do you prepare for this role?
Ballet class everyday. Many hours of rehearsals and coaching with Susan and our rehearsal directors Steven Annegarn and Marianna Tcherkassy for the pas de deuxs and variations. Then, as we get closer to the shows, we start putting the acts together with the corps and other dancers. Finally, we run through the whole ballet to get a feeling of the stamina and pacing required. I also try to work in cross training with pilates, gyrotonics and cardio.
We are also fortunate to be working with a dramaturg, Byam Stevens, for this production. Byam is focusing on the acting, mime and character development for each individual partnership.
Walk us through what it is like to embody both Odette and Odile.
Swan Lake is special because I get to work on two very different flavors of movement — the slow, soft lyricism of Odette as well as the crisp, sharp dynamism of Odile. It allows a dancer to tap into two different sides of themself because, really, everyone has a little of both characters within.
How many pairs of pointe shoes have you used during the rehearsal process?
It’s hard to calculate exactly how many pairs of pointe shoes I’ve used to rehearse Swan Lake because we have been working on it off and on for a while (since about January, I believe). I try to keep a rotation of shoes going so that each individual pair will have time to dry out and be re-glued between wearings so they last a bit longer. Plus, the different acts of the ballet require shoes to be slightly harder or softer depending on the types of steps I’ll be doing. All told, I will probably go through 20 pairs or so by the time May 14th rolls around.
Can you talk about your pre-show ritual?
My pre-show ritual is pretty straightforward. I like to allow myself lots of time. I don’t like to rush. I’ll take company warmup onstage with the rest of the company. I love taking class onstage. There is a hallowed-ness about it — the darkened theater, the space. Then I’ll wrap myself up in a warm blanket, put on some chill, feel-good music and do my makeup. Then, about a half hour before showtime, I’ll start putting my shoes and costume on to warm them up and get settled in them. It takes a bit of body heat to soften everything up and get them feeling like a part of my own body. At about 15 minutes out, I’ll head to the stage, check any props, pre-set water and tissues, feel the floor a bit and maybe practice any tricky moments with my partner. Then, I just take a few deep breaths and try to savor every moment.
What does it mean to you for Swan Lake to be your final performance before you retire?
I love that I am able to dance a full-length story ballet for my final performance because portraying a character and the dramatic side of ballet has always been one of my favorite things about this art form.
Being able to dance full-length Swan Lake — a big, beautiful ballet — on the Benedum Center stage — a big, beautiful theater — to music played by a live orchestra is truly one of the pinnacles of any dancer’s career. It will be somewhat of a “full circle moment” for me as I can still VISCERALLY feel what it was like to stand on the side of the stage in my pose as a member of corps de ballet in my second year as a professional dancer. I remember how it felt to hear that gorgeous Tchaikovsky score soaring out of the pit during the second act adagio. It gave me absolute goosebumps back then, and now that I am the one dancing that adagio as Swan Queen — well, it feels that much richer, I suppose.