Photo: Virginia Trudeau

The Swan Queen

Legendary prima ballerina Cynthia Gregory reflects on performing "Swan Lake"—and how that experience shaped her staging of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s production

Fifty years ago, Cynthia Gregory burst onto the ballet scene in classic star-is-born fashion. The 20-year-old understudy stunned audiences and critics as Odette/Odile in the American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake. It was the first of many prima ballerina roles, ranging from Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty to Lizzie Borden in Fall River Legend before her retirement from ABT in 1991. While she left the stage, she never left the ballet, continuing to write books, teach classes and work on ballets. Gregory has staged portions of Swan Lake with the Nevada Ballet Theatre, but this is her first rendition of the entire ballet. She spoke to Vegas Seven about her leading role behind the scenes. [Gregory’s responses have been edited for narrative flow and clarity.]

Virginia Trudeau

Cynthia Gregory (far left) during an NBT “Swan Lake” rehearsal.

“It’s a big responsibility. People kind of expect me to do a good job because I was known for Swan Lake: OK, she should be an expert. I feel like I am but, still, I worry—I want it to be special. I’m not really a choreographer but I’ve done it enough, I’ve seen so many productions and I’ve been in so many productions, so I have ideas about what I like and don’t like. I want the main things to be moving to people, to tell the story and have them feel something. The music itself can do that to you, and if you have beautiful artists, dancers doing the roles…

“When I first did Swan Lake, I only had two weeks to learn it, to work on it. I had been the fifth understudy—I’d sit on the side and I’d learn the steps, so I knew what they were and I’d seen Swan Lake a few times. So when the director of the company called me and said, ‘You’re going to do it in two weeks,’ I said, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ We were on tour, so I had to rehearse while we were performing at night.

“When you perform something as a young person, you don’t have any depth, you just try to do the steps and tell the story. Little by little, performing it, I found different things I wanted to do with it—some dancers do it as a swan all the way, but I always thought of myself as a woman first and then a swan. I think I gave a more human portrayal. I found a meaning for every step that I did—I don’t think people do that now. I try to give my meaning, but the dancers learning it can find their own meaning in each step.

“I loved working with people like Agnes de Mille and Antony Tudor and George Balanchine. They were all huge in my life and what I’ve danced. I liked people [who] told stories … Agnes de Mille was the first person who said to me: ‘When you’re onstage as a dancer, you are a human being and show that human side of you. You can connect with the audience better if you’re a real person.’ I took that very seriously and used that—I try to get the dancers to do that, too.

“What’s exciting for me is watching Alissa Dale, who did [Odette in] the second act when I staged it [for NBT] before, and now she’s doing the whole thing. She’s going to be the black swan, too, so it’s really fun to watch her take it, look at it, start dancing it and then find the things she wants to do with it. I don’t want her to do it the way I did it. I think of [Odile, the black swan] as something that was conjured up, rather than a real person. She’s seductive, she’s alluring, she’s beautiful and the Prince is overcome by it. I call this the Prince’s ballet because it’s basically his story. I don’t want him to look like a fool, so she can’t be evil—a lot of people play her kind of evil. I like to have her really remind him of the white swan …. He’s had to dance with all of these different princesses from all these different lands and then this glamorous, gorgeous thing comes in and he’s just completely overwhelmed.

“The second act, first scene, with all the white swans, that’s always done pretty much [with] the same choreography. It follows the same patterns: It’s a gem, gorgeous. The ballroom scene is always a little bit different—you have your Spanish dance and your Hungarian and your Neapolitan and all that, but you can do anything you want. So I’ve been changing things for that, too, from when I did it before. It’s funny because it’s kind of my homage to different ballets that I’ve done. So the Hungarian is Raymonda—I danced that with Rudolf Nureyev when he staged it for ABT, and that was a big deal because I was still quite young. The Spanish is Don Quixote and the Neapolitan is [something that] the Royal Danish Ballet used to do, Flower Festival in Genzano, so it’s [somewhat like] a tarantella. And then my Russian is from having watched [Maya] Plisetskaya and [Galina] Ulanova and all of those old Bolshoi ballerinas—I just love it, so I made my Russian part Balanchine, part Bolshoi. They’re having fun with that.

“I consider those of us who worked with the great masters of the 20th century worthy of being the masters of this century, if we can pass what they gave to us down to the younger generation—I take that responsibility very seriously.”

Nevada Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake

Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m.; Feb. 26, 2 p.m., $29-$139, The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall,