Mr. Petton, 55, has always gravitated toward the unconventional, having studied with Alwin Nikolais in the 1980s before starting his own company in France in 1994. It has toured in Europe but never in the United States; he said he hopes to produce “Swan” there in the future, using locally bred swans.
He attributes his fascination with birds to his childhood on the Brittany seaside. “They convey the poetry of life, a certain insouciance,” he said at a cafe in Paris. “For me the dancer is the cousin of the bird.”
Early in the process Mr. Petton wrote to Marie-Agnès Gillot, a principal dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet who had danced Odile-Odette in “Swan Lake,” and invited her to work with the swans. Though she will not perform with Mr. Petton’s company, Ms. Gillot frequently visited the farm and said dancing with the animals felt like a true dialogue: “It’s like the kind of partnership you have with great artists, where with simply a breath you know what the other will do.” From this experience, she said, she also realized that a classic arm gesture for flapping wings in “Swan Lake” is backward; now when she performs it she pumps her arms from back to front.
Mr. Petton’s “Swan” makes a nod to the Tchaikovsky ballet but is quite different. In the first half black swans appear in a river onstage meant to represent the Styx, and a dancer floats by like a cadaver. White swans come out in the second half; their clumsiness is surprising as they walk onto the stage with their spatulalike feet. The original score is percussive and often improvised to match the action, and the dancers, dressed in skintight costumes with their limbs exposed, move like primal beasts — undulating, beating their arms, twitching their feet — they have clearly absorbed some of the swans’ motions.
When the swans are onstage, the rhythm slows, the dance developing into a series of strange tableaus. Dominique Hervieu, who first invited Mr. Petton’s company to perform at the Chaillot theater while she was director there, was amazed at the originality of the images that she saw in rehearsals.
“Swan” has been a risky venture for Mr. Petton. Aside from the typical challenges of creating a new production, he is dealing with various other complications. Two birds died of natural causes. The males in the first batch became aggressive at the age of 2 and had to retire from the show. Backstage the handlers must keep the black and white swans apart so they don’t tear each other to pieces.
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