by Jessika Anspach McEliece
The dreary landscape stretched out before us as we migrated northward on I-5. Headed to the Canadian border, we were searching for that powdery white stuff they call snow. A ski weekend for him, not so much for me – there’s always the lodge and hot cocoa, right? Sitting in the passenger seat, the scenery seemed to mimic the weariness of my own self, having spent weeks recovering from mono.
And then, in the brown bleakness he saw it. He saw them.
“Hey. Hey babe? Do you see that?” my husband asked me as he drove. “On the left…”
I looked over his shoulder through the driver’s window and across two lanes of traffic to see a field, all white. And no. It wasn’t snow.
Squinting his eyes he continued, “I think… Are those..?”
The little kid leapt out of me as my eyes grew wide with wonder; as my heart began to flutter; as I shouted aloud, “SWANS!”
There they were. A whole field of them. Swans. Dozens of them. Maybe even hundreds. An invisible string tugged tightly on my heart and suddenly my soul felt awake – alive.
“PULL OVER BABE!” I implored. “Seriously. Please. Please?!! We can take that next exit… At the very least drive past them? I just have to see them!”
His eyes smiled at me as he laughed and shook his head.
This invisible string.
This strange connection to these beautiful white birds. Why did I feel so drawn to them? What was it about them that so compelled me? When had this affinity begun?
The account is a pretty common one. Part of me wishes I had some crazy story to tell you – that I’d been abandoned as a baby and was raised by a flock of swans, or that one saved me from drowning. Nope. Ironically, I’m quite afraid of birds.
The real deal is that I was eleven, and my mom and I went to see a ballet. We got all dressed up and went on a double date with one of my ballet classmates and her mom to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet perform. Strange how something so seemingly ordinary can have such a monumental impact on your life… And yet this was no ordinary ballet we were seeing. Swan Lake is anything but ordinary.
I was completely mesmerized. Ha! Clearly I still am.
The sets and costumes: those glorious white tutus gleaming in the dark. The music: Tchaikovsky’s haunting and breathtakingly beautiful score. The movement: arms transformed to wings, and fingers to feathers. The story: of mystery and discovery; of transformation; of love and betrayal, disappointment and forgiveness; of flying free. Like beautiful threads they all wove together to make the most exquisite tapestry. Not only was I enthralled by it, I felt caught up in it. Like somehow I had to be a part of it. Like somehow I was.
I left the theater that day changed. I know it might sound crazy, but I felt like something in me had awoken, and I knew what I was created to do. My soul was supposed to be a swan.
Fast-forward seven years, and finally, miraculously, the fulfillment of my soul’s desire had come to fruition. I was a professional division student with the Pacific Northwest Ballet School and it had been seven years since PNB had performed Swan Lake – the last time I saw it. The company had completely redesigned and revamped the entire production for the opening of their newly remodeled opera house. This included expanding the swan corps from 16 to 24 enchanted maidens. And I got to be one of them!
We began rehearsals in early August, and spent six hours a day working tirelessly and meticulously on our swan arms, and running off our “summer softies.” And boy did it ever work! Nothing gets you into shape like Swan Lake. Three hours of non-stop dancing, costume and shoe changing… You barely have enough time for a sip of water. It’s a marathon.
After 6 weeks of working with the always-inspiring Francia Russell (one of PNB’s founding directors), pouring our hearts and souls into this work – so physically demanding and strenuous – we not only moved together, we breathed together. We began as 24 women, but by the end had melded into one. We’d transformed from dancers, to technicians, to cogs in a machine creating intricate patterns and formations.
And then the final metamorphosis: we became creatures carrying a story on our wings. In the skittish pitter-patter of our feet: the fear of getting hurt. In the openness of our chest and shoulders: the desire to be seen and discovered. In the pulse of our arms: the dare to dream, to hope, to fly. In our downcast gaze: the disappointment that breaks the heart. And in our still gentle pose: the peace and freedom that comes from forgiving and letting go.
We became the story. Not just the story of a swan queen and her enchanted maidens, but the story we all share in, in some way or other.
The invisible string that fastens to our hearts.
I remember the last show of that first run of Swan Lake. Vividly. But strangely, the experience, the emotions, they’re always the same every time I perform it (and I’ve been blessed to perform it a number of times):
Utterly spent. The cool moonlight resting on my cheekbone. The rumble that leads to the final crash in Tchaikovsky’s gut-wrenching melody. The baby elbow flutters that lead to full force flaps as if to say, “Now we’ve come to the end. Time for our final flight.” My eyes grow hot with tears. The burning I feel in my arms and back as I swim through the air, feeling the wind beneath my wings. That last figure-eight run that leads into the wing, and for the audience into a state of forever-swandom. How I wish it were true. Oh to always be a swan! The salty drops accumulate in my eyes as I realize that it really could be my final flight. Story ballets only come around every so often…
And then comes the moment that utterly ruins my stage makeup. The one when Odette lovingly lowers Siegfried’s head in forgiveness, sparing him from seeing her final transformation and thus their final separation – the pinnacle of beauty and grace in this ballet that embodies those qualities in every way.
There’s that string tugging again.
But my smile cannot help but shine through the tears as the curtain rises to a roaring applause. And yet it’s quietness, humility and gratitude that overwhelm me as I run forward to take a bow. My heart thankful and soul satisfied with the privilege and blessing to find its fulfillment. To be a swan. To dance. To fly.
We drive past the exit.
It wouldn’t have worked anyway. The swans filled an inaccessible piece of pastureland. We would’ve had to do some serious trespassing and, well we were searching for snow, not swans.
But no matter. They’d brought white and light, hope and joy to my dark circumstances. Reawakened by the tug of that invisible string, my soul was reminded of what it was meant to do.
And as we drive away from that white field, seven of them fly above our car. I don’t need to search for swans. The swan is within me. And I’m flying too.
Experience Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Swan Lake for yourself — tickets are still available for performances running through April 19th.
Contributor Jessika Anspach McEliece is from Bellevue, Washington. She received her training at Pacific Northwest Ballet School, beginning with Creative Movement classes and progressing through to the Professional Division.
In 2002, she joined the Suzanne Farrell Ballet as an apprentice. She joined Pacific Northwest Ballet as an apprentice in 2004 and was promoted to corps de ballet in 2005. Ms. Anspach’s writing on dance has been featured in Dance Magazine. She is also a frequent contributor to Pacific Northwest Ballet’s blog.