“Le Corsaire,” the ballet performed by Columbia Classical Ballet last March, began with a group of female dancers entering the stage — step, step, jump. Then repeat.
At about the fifth set of the movement, Lauren Frere, who was leading the formation, felt her right leg land farther away from her body than usual and she quickly exited the stage. When Frere suddenly disappeared, Radenko Pavlovich, the ballet’s artistic director, knew.
“You know something is wrong, but you can’t figure out what’s going on,” said Pavlovich, who ran backstage. “I was in a panic.”
That night Brooklyn Mack, the Elgin native and Washington Ballet dancer who is a rising star in the classical ballet world, was performing his signature role in “Le Corsaire.” He was the first to reach Frere, who crumbled to the floor backstage. Before she tried to stand, she pressed down hard on her knee.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I popped my knee back in place, I’m good,’ ” Frere recalled.
Still hobbled, though, she had 10 minutes to decide whether she could continue with the show, dancing a pas de deux, variation and other routines.
“I just walked back and started changing,” she said. “Knowing myself, I knew I would dance. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I was going to do something."
When she steps onto the Koger Center stage for Friday night’s performance of “Swan Lake,” it will be the first time Frere has danced a major role since shredding her ACL and tearing the meniscus in her right knee during “Le Corsaire.”
The pain didn’t encroach until after the performance adrenaline faded. At the end of the ballet, Frere and others ride on a ship that glides across the stage. Mack held her tight — for comfort and to balance a one-legged castmate.
“By the end of the ballet I was a little bit emotional because you’re not really sure what’s going on,” Frere said. “You can’t do what you’re supposed to be doing. I knew something was wrong."
The show must always go on is a show business cliche, but it applied to Frere’s performance.
“When they do something like this, you really do realize how much they love ballet, how much they believe in what they’re doing,” Pavlovich said. “This is someone that it’s not just a job. It’s more than that.”
Frere was injured on the last day of the season. Ten days later, she had surgery.
“The scary part is not knowing. Is my leg going to ever get to where it was before?” Frere recalled thinking. “I’m lucky enough that I can do it again.”
“Swan Lake” tells the story of Odette and Odile, commonly referred to as the white and black swan, respectively. Odette is turned into a swan by the conniving sorcerer Von Rothbart, who wants Prince Siegfried to marry his daughter, Odile. At a masked ball, Von Rothbart tricks Siegfried into declaring his love for Odile.
Frere, who danced both parts last year, will perform Odette. Nana Yamatani will dance as Odile.
“You bring in two different characters, two different personalities and I think that gives more energy and more definition between one and the other,” Pavlovich said.
Through an interpreter, Nana said the character of Odile is so different from her that she has nothing to really reference. But Nana, who danced the lead role in “La Bayadere” in October, a staging that also featured Mack, likes the character’s strength.
Last year Frere focused on the technical steps, but this year she said the role has evolved, becoming more emotional.
“I’ve been able to make it really personal,” she said. “This year, I’m thinking about the emotion behind it.”
Frere, who dances with refined elegance, won’t be seen on stage as Odette first. She will dance in the corps de ballet in first act.
“It’s actually kind of nice,” she said of what amounts to a warmup for her. “You get to go out and look at everyone.”
She’ll also get to feel her knee in live action again.
“I crossed a mental threshold recently,” she said. “I’m not sure which one it is all the time. I don’t have to be so conscious of it any more.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.