Ying Li's career as a professional dancer comes full circle this Saturday as she and Jiabin Pan perform their final roles together as full-time dancers. The principal pair, who are married, spent 12 seasons with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre; they take the stage one last time with the company in the lead roles of the Swan Queen and Prince Siegfried in Marius Petipa's immortal Swan Lake. The ballet was the first full-length Li danced when she joined the National Ballet of China, and the first she and Pan performed as PBT corps de ballet members back in 1994.
"This is a very tough role to retire on," says Li, who is nursing a recurrent foot injury. "It will be hard physically and emotionally but I am ready."
Says PBT artistic director Terrence Orr of Li and Pan, "They have been the most important artists we have had here."
Swan Lake is among the crown jewels in the classical repertory, its lead roles a yardstick against which ballet dancers are measured. Li and Pan perform on Sat., Oct. 28, only; at the Sun., Oct. 29 matinee, new PBT soloist Nurlan Abougaliev will partner with soloist Julia Erickson in her debut as the Swan Queen. Joining Abougaliev as PBT members this season are seven other new dancers, including corps de ballet member Aygul Abougalieva, who is also his wife.
"I have the strongest company I have ever had right now," says Orr. "I have eight very talented and experienced dancers joining us this season."
PBT last performed Swan Lake in 2002, and Orr has made a few changes to his staging. The first and second acts of this familiar four-act ballet will be combined without intermission, and Orr has added a pivotal solo for Prince Siegfried at the end of the first act. PBT's production is an amalgamation of versions Orr has done before, with more emphasis on dancing than on traditional dance mime.
"It is still a very classical production, but one that is more engaging," says Orr.
PBT toured the production the first week of October in St. Louis, where it received standing ovations. This weekend's performances should prove equally memorable, and not just for Li and Pan's last performance. The shows also marks the return of live music: The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra will play Tchaikovsky's powerful score, one of two performances this season to feature the orchestra following last year's controversial dismissal of the orchestra and use of recorded music.
Also returning for Swan Lake is longtime PBT Orchestra conductor and music director Akira Endo, who led the orchestra from 1991-2000.
Swan Lake offers a last chance to witness the brilliance of the company's most popular dancers and also an opportunity to welcome a new crop of dancers that will shape the company in the future.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presents Swan Lake 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 27; 8 p.m. Sat., Oct. 28; and 2 p.m. Sun., Oct. 29. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $16-78. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org