Classical Music & Dance

Hard work makes Kansas City Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ look effortless

After a long day of rehearsal, dancer Molly Wagner says she soaks her feet in ice and gets plenty of sleep to stay in tip top shape to dance the lead role in “Swan Lake.” She practiced recently with dancer Liang Fu as Cynthia Gregory and KC Ballet artistic director Devon Carney watched.
After a long day of rehearsal, dancer Molly Wagner says she soaks her feet in ice and gets plenty of sleep to stay in tip top shape to dance the lead role in “Swan Lake.” She practiced recently with dancer Liang Fu as Cynthia Gregory and KC Ballet artistic director Devon Carney watched.

The sight of a swan floating effortlessly across a lake induces a sense of calm. But it’s far from effortless for a human to achieve that graceful appearance.

Molly Wagner, one of the three women dancing the role of Odette/Odile in the Kansas City Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” says the roles require weeks of grueling training worthy of a world-class athlete — and it’s painful.

“At nights, when I don’t have to teach, I go home and I go through the process of putting my feet in a bucket of ice — 10 minutes in, 10 minutes out, and I do that three times,” Wagner said.

“I roll out and stretch a lot because to me it’s very important to be very loose and limber for this role. Sleep, too. I go home and I crash. Everybody has their own way of dealing with it, but it’s about taking care of your body and your mind. Making sure your body is able to push through.”

This is the ballet’s first production of the classic. The company’s eight performances begin Friday at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

The dual lead role of Odette, the princess transformed into a swan by the sorcerer Von Rothbart, and Odile, the black swan and Von Rothbart’s evil daughter, is considered the most demanding in the ballet repertoire. For Wagner, who has been with the Kansas City Ballet since 2012, the opportunity is a dream come true.

“It’s the complete embodiment of a dancer,” Wagner said. “Letting go and being so free with your arms and your port de bras, but yet being so controlled with your feet, and just having that ultimate control. There are times when I get up en pointe, spreading my toes so I can roll ever so gently. It’s those tiny little moments that maybe the audience doesn’t necessarily notice. They just notice this airy, soft, delicate quality that makes it come together.”

Wagner has been rehearsing five days a week to prepare for “Swan Lake.”

“Molly is working her tail off, I’ve got to tell you,” said Devon Carney, artistic director of the Kansas City Ballet. “Those Odettes are working hard because you’ve got to be able to do it all. You have to be strong as steel and soft as chiffon. That’s not an easy task. Some companies have different women dancing Odette and Odile, but if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right, the way it’s supposed to be. I really believe our women are in a place where they’re ready for this.” The other women dancing the roles are Tempe Ostergren and Sarah Chun.

Assisting Carney in shaping the lead dancers is Cynthia Gregory. One of the highlights of Gregory’s illustrious career dancing with the American Ballet Theatre was her acclaimed performance as Odette-Odile at 20. She’s imparting a lifetime of experience to the Kansas City Ballet.

“When you can have a legend — and Cynthia is literally a living legend in the dance world — share her insight into the intricacies and nuances of this role, it’s transforming,” Carney said.

Cynthia Gregory, former prima ballerina of American Ballet Theatre, has been in town working with dancers at the Kansas City Ballet as they rehearse for their upcoming production of "Swan Lake." Gregory made her debut as Odette/Odile in the full-l

“Swan Lake” requires not only supremely proficient dancers in the lead roles, but also a large number of dancers in the corps de ballet. And those dancers must also possess a high level of technical ability. Those demands put “Swan Lake” beyond the capabilities of most medium and smaller-sized ballet companies. In fact, the Kansas City Ballet has never had the resources to perform the work until now.

When Carney became artistic director in 2013, he set out to increase the number of dancers and refine their technique so they could tackle large ballets like “Swan Lake.”

Now with 24 expertly trained swans in the corps, Carney believes the company is rising to the occasion

“What I think is a paramount part of the ballet is the corps, because ‘Swan Lake’ is one of those great corps de ballet-type of works,” he said. “They need to move and breathe as a single unit. They really are the emotional content of the ballet in terms of the sadness and the whole issue of being under this spell.”

Carney says the sets, rented from Milwaukee Ballet, are beautiful.

“Especially the forest scenes and the lake,” he said. “And you’ve got the ballroom in the castle, which has a very formal feel to it. And the costumes are quite colorful and lively.”

Live music will be provided by the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Ramona Pansegrau, a musician who is deeply sympathetic to the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

“Swan Lake is one of those ballets that is an awesome thing to do around the Valentine’s Day time period because it’s inspired by such romance,” Carney said. “I can’t count the number of times in my 39 years in ballet that people have proposed during the ‘Swan Lake’ run. It is such a romantic place to give your vow to marry somebody because that’s what the prince does, he vows his love forever to Odette.”

For Wagner, being able to dance the lead role in “Swan Lake” is like something out of a fairy tale.

“I think there’s some sort of humbleness with dancers that you kind of have that slight little flicker of hope to some day dance the role of Odette-Odile,” she said. “But then you’re like, ‘Oh, no, you can’t expect that.’ So to look back and see how far I’ve come, it does excite me, and it reminds me that everything is possible with hard work and dedication and not losing focus on what you want.”

And lots and lots of ice.

You can reach Patrick Neas at


“Swan Lake” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Feb. 25, 26 and 27; and at 2 p.m Sunday and Feb. 27 and 28, all in the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $55-$125. For more information: 816-931-8993 or