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The touch of a feather, the sound of their feet

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MY favorite moment in all of ballet is when the swans first appear in ``Swan Lake.'' It's not their cloudlike lightness that gets me as they scud along the shore in the blue-purple-silver twilight. Nor is it the perfect unison they sometimes attain. It's the rattle of their feet in their toe shoes, with sometimes a squeak of resin. That and Tchaikovsky's swan theme, wary, urgent, tender, and above all, abundantly, romantically, sad. That makes my arm hair stand on end. I know I'm in a world where grand passions will be played out with harmony, symmetry, and grace. And true love will triumph over death and confusion.

I love the sound of their feet, because it's touching to me that these beautiful wraiths are actually human beings who weigh 100 pounds or so, stepping along on layers of satin, glue, leather, and cardboard, intent on telling an impossible fairy tale.

At my first ``Swan Lake,'' that noise was the only thing I liked. The premise of the ballet seemed preposterous. Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a princess who has been turned into a swan. His fidelity could break the spell. It doesn't; he falls for her double (not noticing she's wearing all black instead of all white) and breaks Odette's heart instead. The merest wobble in the corps can spoil the mood, and I do remember some galumphing among the cygnets. But I think what made me miss the romance was fear. There I was, a college junior with a review to write, and I had never seen ``Swan Lake'' before. A work that had existed for almost 100 years, based on a dance tradition at least 200 years old, and I had stopped taking ballet when I was 5.

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