My First Swan Lake

12 Nov

And so it begins…welcome, to Swan Lake Month!  In case you weren’t aware of the historical background, until today, I had never watched a full production of Swan Lake (long story).  Of course I’ve seen many a Black Swan pas de deux but like my lack of understanding of the context in which it is set went from gust of wind to hurricane.  It seemed like everywhere I turned (well, on Twitter anyway) people would talk Swan Lake and it became increasingly evident that I wouldn’t be a fully fledged balletomane until I earned my Swan Lake badge.  However (and foolishly I might add), rather than try to pick one of the many productions and pluck away one by one at the others some day in the future, the impulsive Aries in me wanted to go all in and watch quite a few of them in a short period of time.  I’m only one DVD in and already I’m feeling like I should have given this more thought before embarking on this endeavor…but alas, it is much to late and I am a creature of my word.

The first DVD I decided to go with was the Bolshoi, starring Natalia Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile, Alexander Bogatyrev as Prince Siegfried and Boris Akimov as Von Rothbart.  Why Bolshoi?  Despite the fact that the Bolshoi version is actually a relatively new staging with choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, culturally speaking, Swan Lake is kind of the Russian “thing.”  It debuted in Russia, had a Russian composter in Tchaikovsky and depending on whom you talk to, is based on Russian folklore.  I associate a certain sense of tradition with a Russian Swan Lake,  and it’s by virtue of that pride I think the Russians set the standard.

Since I obviously don’t know that much about Swan Lakes, I couldn’t tell you what makes Grigorovich’s staging unique…for that I shall turn to Clement Crisp and Mary Clarke (how many times do I have to sing the praises of their The Ballet Goer’s Guide?).  In it, they point out that Grigorovich chose to tell the story from Siegfried’s point of view, a post-war trend also exercised in Swan Lake choreography by Nureyev and Erik Bruhn.  Grigorovich’s Swan Lake is a venture of sorts into Siegfried’s psychology, made more apparent by some of the more abstract set designs (something I noticed on my own I might add…anytime you can arrive at the same conclusion as Mr. Crisp, consider yourself brushed by genius!) as well as his relationship to Von Rothbart.  Rather than an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart is this sinister eidolon, often shadowing Siegfried’s movements and skirting the lines between reality and a figment of his imagination…it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, where a man on an airplane is driven nuttercrackers by a gremlin the plane that apparently, only he can see.

I should also note that Mr. Crisp and I agree on another thing…we despise jesters in ballet.  In this Swan Lake it was a pretty meaty, acrobatic dancing role, but they bother me and I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one.  You may recall my aversion to jesters in my post about Romeo and Juliet; let’s just say nothing has changed since.  It’s incredibly worthwhile to post Mr. Crisp and Ms. Clarke’s comments on the matter:

In passing we must note the Jester—a detestable figure in all ballets—was first introduced into Swan Lake as a positive character by Alexander Gorsky, thus initiating the distracting capers of a completely unnecessary intruder into the ballet’s action.

I actually laughed out loud when I read that, because it’s so perfect I couldn’t imagine it worded any other way.

Anyway, overall I was into it…I had my concerns about divertissements going in, but I think the story moves along fairly well.  In Act I there’s a long procession of the court with lots of dancing (I think I even spotted Nina Ananiashvili in the pas de quatre), and while it was longer than I would prefer, it wasn’t as contrived as some classical ballets are.  I think this is where Swan Lake succeeds and other Petipa (or after Petipa) classical works don’t—the flow and movement of the story aren’t inhibited by extraneous choreography.  Also, (and this is going to sound really stupid) it helped that the longest assortment of divertissements were at the beginning, when as an audience member I still have that excitement to get me through it…having them at the end is a major dead weight.  Even in Act III (according to Crisp/Clarke, Act II remains largely the same as Ivanov-Gorsky), the set of national dances make sense as Siegfried is to choose one of those maidens to be his bride, although at that point he had just come back from his date with Odette and had fallen in love with her.  My only gripe with the logicality of the story was that I wasn’t clear as to why Von Rothbart wanted to trick Siegfried into declaring his love for Odile…from what I’ve read about other versions, they make sense because Von Rothbart is the key to breaking the spell on Odette that turns her into a swan and through this, Von Rothbart can torture Siegfried, while in the Grigorovich version Von Rothbart’s life or death is largely inconsequential…it makes his taunting of Siegfried almost trivial instead of malicious.  This is definitely something I’ll be keeping in mind as I watch other versions.

This version also lacked the iconic scene where Siegfried aims a crossbow at Odette…largely due to the fact that this is an exploit of Siegfried’s mind but I found it a little ironic that in a Swan Lake that seeks to glorify the male dancer, that such an image which would develop his character would be omitted.  When Siegfried almost kills Odette with an arrow but then doesn’t, he has to change from a brute to a remorseful, lovesick young man.  It’s a fantastic opportunity to display a range of his character, but now that I think about it, I can see why Grigorovich forsook it—it’s perhaps too romantic for his interpretation of Siegfried.  Other Siegfrieds must seek Odette’s forgiveness and the audience begins to see him as a hero as he transforms from hunter to pursuer, but perhaps Grigorovich wanted his Siegfried to be less heroic and more human.

I have to say that Bessmertnova as Odette/Odile turned in a particularly exceptional performance.  Nothing was overcooked and she tempered it with just the right amount of subtleties.  One thing I found fascinating was the way in which she first appeared as Odile, she almost seemed skeptical, as if her and Von Rothbart’s fraudulent ploy wouldn’t work, but clearly she overestimated the dopey Siegfried and when it came time for her moment, the famous Black Swan grand pas de deux, her confidence in herself as an imposter had fully fleshed out.  The performance was perhaps a bit dated (from 1989), but it was interesting to see how things have changed with the Bolshoi—the bodies, the technique—Bessmertnova didn’t have a six o’clock penchée but the very fact that she didn’t revealed something more interesting…Siegfried’s FACE.  There’s a whole new dimension added when we can actually see the male partner’s face as he’s supporting his danseuse and this art of shading is becoming a rarity in ballet as a whole.

As for the whole “feminine mystique” business, I want to draw my conclusions after I’ve watched them all, but my initial thoughts are that Swan Lake is about the pursuit…there’s something about the way in which women want to be approached (not chased, mind you) and probably something in there about being loved and adored but not merely because of sex appeal (the lustful side being Odile).  Overall, I think this has been a good first viewing of Swan Lake and the film is grainy, spotted but I love older films and think those things give it character.  Besides a few grumbles here and there, the only major downside of the DVD is that there’s no audience track, so you don’t hear applause or even the wonderful muted thuds of pointe shoes hitting the floor.  So, I give the Bolshoi Swan Lake four stars out of three squares, because I have nothing else to compare it to.  Anyway, it’s pretty.

And because you know it was going to be on YouTube, the Black Swan Pas de Deux (check out how Bogatyrev lands his double tours in the male variation…in perfect, upright arabesques! Crazy!)

(Random, but why does Von Rothbart take a seat next to the Queen?)

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2 Responses to “My First Swan Lake”

  1. Ana Weisz November 13, 2010 at 4:36 pm #

    Hi! Been lurking your blog for a few weeks, first time commenting!

    I’ve never seen this one, but it does sound like something worth checking out. Especially because I find Siegfried to be the most appealing and complex character in SW. I must admit, though I have a very low tolerance for Swan Lakes and they tend to fail at engaging me.

    But the one that I was absolutely in love with was The Royal Ballet’s with Marianela as Odette/Odile. She rocked the part like the effortless goddess she is. I hope it’s on your list!

    • youdancefunny November 14, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

      Hello and thanks for commenting!

      Unfortunately, the new Royal Ballet production wasn’t available at the library…I wish it was though! I love Marianela!

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