CHARLOTTE, NC – For generations, budding ballerinas around the globe have aspired to be a member of the gaggle who dance to the primeval strains of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The best of them dare to dream of dancing the roles of Odette, Queen of the Swans, and her evil, seductive doppelganger, Odile. Yet more than 50 years elapsed in the life of Charlotte Ballet before the company brought Odile, Odette, and Swan Lake to the Queen City. To many, including millions of those budding ballerinas, Swan Lake and ballet are synonymous. So in a town that has a reputation of resisting the new and clinging blindly to proven classics, you have to wonder why this premiere – a quite glorious one at Knight Theater – has taken so long to happen.

Although scenery, costumes, and props are on loan from the ballet troupes of Cincinnati, Arizona, and Atlanta, the mélange is quite impressive. Choreography by Ib Andersen, based on the definitive 1895 overhaul by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and the work of CharBallet dancers, Charlotte Ballet II, members of the pre-professional program, and students of the Ballet Academy are more than enough to stamp this marvel as homegrown. Extra freshness and vivacity rose from the orchestra pit as the Charlotte Symphony, directed by Gavriel Heine, performed the full score for the first time – with the ardor of an orchestra that has been waiting over 90 years for a living, breathing ballet corps to partner with on this mammoth venture.

Those little-girl aspirations are freshly recalled by the glittery merch in the Knight lobby, so the anticipation in the audience before curtain-rise was akin to the excitement that greets the CharBallet-Symphony collaboration each December as Belk Theater fills up for The Nutcracker. Even after opening night, you are at a special event. While the Cincinnati scenery can be improved upon (rather easily, I’m afraid); especially in and around Prince Siegfried’s castle; the courtiers, the servers, and the ladies in waiting regally create a teeming spectacle that fulfills expectations in Act 1. Oliver Oguma, the first of three leading men who will rotate during the 12-performance run, is a soulful Prince Siegfried with a bonus of brawn. Some heavy lifting lies ahead, but before lifting Odile up high, Oguma had to be able to shine solo in the opening scene, where he basically rejects every eligible maid in the kingdom. The Queen Mother is royally chagrined – a triumphant comeback for Ayisha McMillan Cravotta, more beautiful than ever.

Two ballet dancers on stage in black and white

Evelyn Robinson and Oliver Oguma, photo credit Taylor Jones

Andersen discreetly subtracts some courtiers from the Petipa scenario, but there’s enough dazzle remaining for them not to be terribly missed. The dozen courtiers beguile us in varying configurations, and the pas de trois sequence with Bridget Fox, Humberto Ramazzina, and Samantha Riester is endearing elegance and charm. Dancing the Page’s solos, Academy student Russell Abel struck me as a prodigy, able to leap and land squarely on the beat. Yet as the act climaxed, viewers who are accustomed to seeing Prince Siegfried flanked by noble chums might feel that Oguma gradually becomes excessively forlorn in spite of all his solo exploits.

Yet it’s justified to view the sparsity of plot and companionship in the opening scene as a perfect way to magnify the éclat of Act 2, where the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart and his enchanted flock finally take the stage – a bevy of 24 Cygnets and Swans plus one sublime Queen. You might even be tempted to laugh at the triteness of the choreography that precedes Odette’s first entrance – until you realize that Ivanov and Swan Lake likely fashioned the familiar template that Hollywood, Broadway, TV, and Vegas have turned to ever after in innumerable dancing build-ups to the entrances of their stars. James Kopecky, in a spectacularly hideous bird costume of his own – with poles to extend his wingspan – is magnificently malign in his various poses and flourishes, adding magic and menace to the big moment.

Evelyn Robinson was more than equal to it. She was divine perfection: fearlessness, symmetry, balance, musicality, and supple flow were all absolute to an inhuman degree. Only the little expressive flutters of her head and face subtly reassured us that a tortured soul hovered above her pluperfect point work. Later, when Robinson invaded Prince Siegfried’s surprisingly drab ballroom as Odile, you kind of wondered whether she would dramatically vary or eclipse what has gone before. Seemingly responding to more spellbinding sorcerer gestures from Kopecky, a bit like a taunting pro wrestling baddie in his taunts, Robinson softened ever so slightly. Her seductiveness trickled naturally from her added liquidity, and her expressions became more worldly and knowing, like a Vogue supermodel shoot. Or Melania.

Two ballet dancers onstage dressed in black

Evelyn Robinson and Oliver Oguma, photo credit Taylor Jones

In sum, Robinson was all I could hope for and occasionally more. But the swans! I hadn’t even begun to imagine what they can be in live performance. Whether it was the composer’s masterstroke in the original 1877 score premiered by the Bolshoi or the brainchild of ballet specialist Riccardo Drigo, who revised the score for its successful 1895 resuscitation in St. Petersburg, the music hushes so much that the en pointe work of the flock is clearly audible – not only audible but a chief element of the music’s fluttery percussion. Over the course of the 2 hour 17 minute epic, it wasn’t only principal harpist Andrea Mumm who excelled. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu came to the fore with some fine solo work in Act 3, and acting principal oboist Erica Cice was gold all evening long on the haunting big tune.

What floored me most, after watching Charlotte Ballet ever since it arrived here (from Winston-Salem) as North Carolina Dance Theatre in 1990, was the unprecedented synchronicity of this bevy of fluttering Swans. For decades, the individuality of each NC or Charlotte dancer was the company’s trademark. Let Miami and what’s-his-name do synchronicity! Yet here in an instant, the phenomenon of a perfectly calibrated ensemble of 24 women, dancing on point to the same heartbeat, had arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was eerie and breathtaking. Historic.

Will CharBallet fully possess Swan Lake in the future with their own scenery, props, and costumes? Hope so. This is one you’ll want to see again.