For Soloist Jessica McCann, dancing the iconic role of Odette-Odile in Susan Jaffe’s Swan Lake is a dream come true — and a dream that she has worked hard to achieve. From her first performance in Swan Lake with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 2018 when she performed as a Little Swan and in the pas de trois, to now dancing the technically demanding lead role, Jessica finds the accomplishment well worth the challenge. Read on to discover how she is preparing for the daunting and exhilarating milestone of her debut performance as the Swan Queen.
What has it been like to learn Swan Lake under the direction of Susan Jaffe, who was such an iconic Swan Queen?
It’s been an absolute privilege and honor to have Susan in the studio with me, passing down all the knowledge and experience she has from her career and the legendary coaches she got to work with. It’s hard to put into words the gratitude I feel. It makes me feel safe, because I have her here guiding me into the most successful debut I could hope for in such an extremely difficult role, one I’ve dreamt of performing all my life. I’m fully trusting the process and it’s a lot of hard work and detailing. Susan is working closely with me, handing me all the tools for finding my own Swan Queen.
How do you prepare for this role?
There’s a lot to do and many ways I’ve been preparing for this role. When I’m not rehearsing the steps and working on my stamina, I listen to the music, think of the story, review the choreography and do a ton of positive visualization. We’ve also been working with dramaturge coach Byam Stevens who also worked closely with Susan Jaffe during her career. Then, of course, I’m being coached by Susan herself. Creating that dialogue and personal story in my head and with my partner is really important.
How many pairs of pointe shoes have you used during the rehearsal process?
I easily kill one pair of pointe shoes within an hour of rehearsing the White Swan adagio from Act ll. With all the repetition and getting the steps just right, or that tender moment with my partner just right, it really kills the shoes. I dry the shoes out, glue them and wear them again the next day for something else, but on average I’m currently going through roughly four to five pairs of shoes a week, and that’s squeezing by.
Thinking about my performance and what my “shoe plan” will be feels like a gamble. I’m currently thinking about wearing new shoes for Act ll, Act lll Black Swan and a third new pair for Act IV, so I’d have to prep three pairs of shoes per dress rehearsal and each performance.
Can you talk about your pre-show ritual?
It’s different with every production because it depends on what role I’m doing, but I usually like to keep to myself. For big roles like this I’ll probably be ready early because I like living in the costume for a bit to make it feel normal and I fall into the role easier when the costume is on. I calm myself mentally, do positive visualization and make sure I’m in the right headspace. That’s extremely important to me. I also check in with my partner and we might try a few things after class. I just try not to psych myself out or get in my head too much about anything. After so much rehearsal I have to trust it’s in my body so the mind must be calm. You’ll probably also find me fussing over my pointe shoes until the show starts because they have to be just right.
Walk us through what it is like to embody both Odette and Odile.
I think we all have different sides to us as people, so drawing that out in yourself to the maximum in each direction is what it feels like to go from rehearsing Odette to Odile and back to Odette in the same rehearsal day. They are completely different. In order to make that switch, you have to know your character really well, which is what I’ve been working on. I’ve really just thrown myself into the experience and rehearsal process. I have to put myself there mentally to really dive deeper into these two roles.
Odile is a temptress — she’s seductive and finds joy in playing this game with Rothbart of Siegfried’s heart. Odette is a princess that has been taken by Rothbart and she’s essentially a hostage, a victim of a horrible curse. She’s kind, still has pride as queen of the swans and she knows what she must do at the end of this story, which takes a strong person to make that choice. She’s the kind of person who forgives the prince for his mistake of falling for Odile’s tricks, but knows she must sacrifice herself so the curse can be lifted. I really enjoy playing both types of characters. I’ve always loved roles with deep acting involved, so this is honestly a challenge I’m extremely excited about.
What part of the ballet holds a special place in your heart?
The music. The story. The emotional depth of this ballet — it’s a masterpiece. I bring myself to tears listening to the music and watching the story unfold in my mind, specifically in Act IV where Odette has been betrayed by Siegfried. Even though she forgives him, the damage has been done. She says goodbye to her love and fights to break free from Rothbart to kill herself and break the spell. The music there is so overwhelming to me I’ll probably cry on stage. Another amazing moment in the music and story is in Act lll where it’s Odile’s first entrance with Rothbart. Arriving fashionably late of course, turning every head in the ballroom and immediately seducing Siegfried. I mean, what an entrance!!