The eternal swan. That might a better name for the ballet we love to hate.
OK, so maybe hate is too strong a word, but more often than not, when we dance writers see Swan Lake on the bill for a company's season -- it's being performed by the Texas Ballet Theater May 30-June 1 at Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall -- we shudder with fear that this could be yet another bad production. And we're simultaneously excited because it's a beautiful piece of choreography and music. The fear comes in quickly because while this classic ballet is every dancer's dream, it's also a nightmare, with its extreme difficulty, both technically and emotionally.
For a ballerina, the role of Odette/Odile is one that requires a true balance of opposition. As Wendy Whelan, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, wrote in a piece for The Daily Beast in 2010, it's a character that requires an extreme level of artistry, one that seamlessly blends technique with a poeticism of the body. "I have played the dual roles and understand firsthand the intense physical drain and the nervous energy that gets stirred up in both body and mind while preparing for it. When the body gets exhausted the mind can be become fragile. It requires a particular strength and confidence in one's emotional core unlike anything else in classical ballet."
Darren Aronofsky exploits this physicality in his film, Black Swan. Aronofsky makes the story his own, with drugs and sex and violence, all of which are absent in the original version of this ballet. But what the film points to is the concept of self-possession, which is at the basis of the ballet's story.
The ballet is a real head-trip. Or fairy tale. Pick your poison. The story goes like this: A beautiful princess, Odette (the Swan Queen), meets a handsome prince, but then a wicked sorcerer captures the princess, and turns her into a swan. Only if the prince pledges his love and marries her can the evil spell be broken. If he betrays his love, she will remain a swan forever.
But how is he to know that the swan is his love? It's the worst test of a relationship. Odette has no voice, she's a swan, the prince is completely oblivious, and the sorcerer, well, he's like the worst friend you've ever had -- you know the one. He tries to set the prince up with his daughter, Odile (the Black Swan). The prince is put under a spell by the evil Black Swan and becomes convinced that this is the woman he shall marry. But just as soon as he makes that decision, he realizes he is the victim of a heinous plot. He tries to ask the forgiveness of his Swan Queen Odette, but she's cursed to remain a swan forever now, and needless to say, she's not too excited about it. She comes to the realization that she has no choice but to kill herself. The prince decides that he will die with her, and they throw themselves into the lake.
Imagine having to kill yourself every night on stage. It would mess with any one's mind. It's not exactly the most pleasant role to play, and it's not exactly the most uplifting and enjoyable thing to see; yet, we keep coming back for more and dancers keep hoping that they'll land the role.
I think the answer lies in the fact that we're hoping to become a part of history. The ballet is over 100 years old and has a unique record. The work we know today as Swan Lake, began as The Lake of the Swans and originally was choreographed by Julius Reisinger for the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre. That premiere was not as well received. The criticism was almost unanimous when it came to discussing the dancers, orchestra, and set design: Reviewers didn't like one single thing, and many critics considered the music to be far too complicated for movement. They even went on to say that they found Reisinger's choreography to be "unimaginative and altogether unmemorable," as documented in Gary Rosen's Swan Lake: An Historical Appreciation.
Yet something was connecting with the audience and producers, since the production ran for six years and was performed 41 times -- more than any other ballets in the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theatre -- and was revived, 20 years later, by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with the name Swan Lake, and a new adaptation of Tchaikovsky's original score by Italian composer Riccardo Drigo. Today, Drigo's revision, not Tchaikovsky's original score, is used by many ballet companies.
It was this version that critics finally liked. Ivanov's choreography in the second act was hailed as wonderful, and Petipa's made a star out of Pierina Legnani, who danced the role of Odette and Odile -- I'll get to her impact a little later on.
While it is this version that is most commonly used today, we have historically seen restagings that try to contemporize the story. The first man at bat: Rudolf Nureyev, who in the early 1960s flipped the story. "For me, Swan Lake is one long daydream on the part of [the] prince ... reared on romantic reading, his desire for infinity has been fired and he refuses the reality of the power and the marriage forced on him by his tutor and his mother," Nureyev was noted as saying. Through his own performance and versions of the ballet, Nureyev reconstructed Swan Lake by adding in a narrative for the prince that took the piece to a place of psychological understanding.
In 1995, British choreographer/director Matthew Bourne, inspired by Nureyev's obsession with the prince, decided to explore the role of masculinity by having each part be played by a man. No women allowed. Bourne notes in his program for a 2006 performance that "the idea of a male swan [made] complete sense ... the strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to me the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu."
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Fast-forward to 2002 and Graeme Murphy took a turn and modernized the plot, split the role of Odette and Odile so that it was played by two dancers and created a sub-plot of a "womanizer" and conspiracy theories. It's a story that we can more easily relate to, and it's an even trickier mind-trip, since we have probably been witness to infidelity in our own lives or know someone who has. It's a work that instantly raises the blood pressure and nervousness of an audience. We don't like to face a mirror of our reality that shows us how badly we can treat each other, and how easily we can be tricked.
Yet, we keep coming back for more, and companies keep tackling this beast, because if you can nail Swan Lake, you can handle just about anything. The curse of the swan can bite hard if you're not careful. If you cast the wrong lead, your Odette/Odile will flop. If your dancers don't understand the complexity of Tchaikovsky's score, your audience will be bored, and more often than not, that is the case. Gracefulness and elegance can quickly turn to apathy and monotony. If that happens, all that money you just spent to get the rights to the ballet are a waste. Sure, you dancers learned some really complicated variations, but if you have no butts in the seats, or a snoozing audience, you might as well close the curtain.
So, is the ballet really as cursed as Aronofsky would have us believe? Of course not. You're not going to start growing feathers from your back and have delusional psychotic breaks while training for the role of Odette/Odile. But the character is one of the toughest to master, and she does strike fear in the hearts of every ballerina, because every ballerina wants to be her. The prestige that comes from landing the role and then performing it flawlessly is at the top of most dancers' bucket lists. The experience is invaluable, and to play the part so seamlessly that it is second nature is a lofty goal to have. That's all thanks to one gifted ballerina, Pierina Legnani, who performed with such grace and discipline, any audience who saw her said that no one else would ever be able to play the role like she could. Every girl since then has been compared to Legnani. You might not know her name, but you probably know what she is famous for: the 32 fouettes (a fast whipping turn on one foot) she did in a row. That part of the choreography has become a staple and challenge for every dancer since Legnani. But we still love the ballet and we still want that part. No matter how mad it might drive us, and audiences will still show up to see what craziness might occur.
More information and tickets for Texas Ballet Theater's performance of Swan Lake are available at the theater's website.