Tag Archives: swan lake month

HER way

30 Nov

If I watched Natalia Makarova in Swan Lake, it seemed to make sense to then watch her own staging of Swan Lake as I find myself on the penultimate page of the Swan Lake Month chronicles.  Makarova’s production was performed by the London Festival Ballet (now called the English National Ballet), with Evelyn Hart as Odette/Odile and Peter Schaufuss as Prince Siegfried.

In many ways, Makarova’s staging is a sort of female equivalent to Nureyev…she added much more depth to Odette’s character though I can’t say she added more choreography for her.  This Swan Lake was made for film, as evidenced by an abundance of superimposed images of Von Rothbart as an owl, menacingly flapping his wings.  I wasn’t a huge fan of them…but with experimentations in video technology being the innovative thing at the time (it was filmed in 1988) I can see why people thought it would be a good idea.  Anyway, I point this out because it’s divided into two acts and each act has an introduction by the woman herself, speaking with her beautiful Russian accent and wearing this fabulous eighties garb with shoulder pads (since Makarova refers to the Prince as “Ziegfried,” I feel inspired to do the same).  It’s in these introductions where Makarova gave some insight into how she felt Odette should be portrayed, including some unusual tidbits like how for her, Odette knew Ziegfried would screw things up but decided to allow herself to fall in love with him anyway, and a slight twist to her ending where Odette knows she can save Ziegfried by sacrificing herself, though oddly, they both die anyway.  It seems many significant changes Makarova made were in the acting of the role, as opposed to the dancing.

The production was fairly close to what she performed with the Royal Ballet, though a bit woodsier with an Arthurian feel.  The choreography was the typical after Petipa and retained a few of the additions Frederick Ashton had made.  Makarova did include Benno in the story, though he doesn’t seem to have much significance despite having quite the meaty dancing role.  In fact, she kept the Danse Napolitaine from the Royal Ballet production (which I’m sure is Ashton’s) but has Benno dance it instead.  He serves no real purpose in the first scene by the lakeside as Ziegfried loses him while loping through the woods.  This chase scene was rather long, with various shots of Benno and Ziegfried doing arabesques in the forest and again, I found it an unnecessary exploration of the film medium.  Many of the solos are rearranged a bit though, as Ziegfried’s Act I solo (which was glorious on Anthony Dowell) is gone, though he does get a brief solo in the final scene.  Other additions include a pas de deux between Ziegfried and Odile after the famous Black Swan pas de deux, something I think I only saw in the Fonteyn/Nureyev version too.

Odette’s choreography is definitely modeled after Makarova, though I don’t know that Eveyln Hart pulled it off.  In fact, some of the adagios and the Odette variation I think are even slower than Makarova herself did them, and because Odette’s variation does include a few jumps there’s no way to not look labored at such a slow tempo.  Hart is a beautiful dancer with some extraordinary balances in this performance, but because of the stagnancy of the timing her legs almost look rigid. She is also so dainty that I felt like the music is swallowing her at times.  However, while I generally appreciated her dancing, I don’t think I’m a fan of an attitude position that’s too long in a demi-arabesque.  At one time (or perhaps it’s just depending on the school) an attitude position had a ninety-degree angle at the bent knee and for some, it’s now an elongated curve.  Hart’s is even further, a legitimate choice, but I do prefer a rounder attitude.  Regardless, I enjoyed her acting of the dual roles and didn’t have a problem with her interpretation of the characters at all.

Schaufuss on the other hand, is a prodigious technician—his pirouetting ability is truly remarkable, which of course put on full display in the Black Swan pas de deux as well as other choreography in the same ballroom scene.  He opted for a melancholy portrayal of the Prince, playing up his naivety and gentle character which makes sense because Makarova wants the Prince to be seen as a victim of Von Rothbart’s trickery, thus making her rescue of him at the end more pertinent.  I found the pairing of Hart and Schaufuss to be almost ironic because Hart was almost stiff in comparison to the soft plies of the exceptionally clean Schaufuss (in the next life, I seriously need me some Danish ballet training).  Even though the Black Swan pas de deux is more or less the stereotypical  moment everyone waits for, I have to say that it really was the highlight for me.  Interestingly enough, the Black Swan pas de deux is started with a few lifts between Von Rothbart and Odile (not seen below), something unique to this production and almost makes it seem as if Von Rothbart is forcing Odile onto Ziegfried as his way of trying to convince him she is in fact Odette.

The Black Swan Pas de Deux

This is a well-rounded Swan Lake with no major surprises and one that definitely favors Odette’s point of view.  The London Festival Ballet corps is exceptionally clean and the soloists provide other moments of brilliance (in particular the pas de quatre at the beginning of the ballet stands out to me as one of the best I’ve seen).  The only things I really didn’t like were the video effects…but like shoulder pads, they were the trend at one time.  Regardless, with Makarova being one of the model Swan queens of her generation, it is worth seeing what she believes are the critical details in a Swan Lake.  Though I can’t seem to procure it at the moment, I can’t help but feel this performance has sewn the seeds of the answers I’ve been looking for on my quest to “solve” the feminine mystery of Swan Lake


Resistance is futile

28 Nov

You know I love the Royal Ballet, so of course I have to include at least one of their productions for Swan Lake Month, in this case the one featuring Natalia Makarova as Odette/Odile and Anthony Dowell as Siegfried.  Right off the top I think it’s important to note that a Makarova performance as Odette is quintessential; it’s her thing and she does not disappoint in this DVD.  It’s one of those performances where you don’t know why or how, but you can feel how much she loves that role.  Of course, Anthony Dowell is no slouch and they had a wonderful, memorable partnership—I would even go as far to say that this was the most memorable Odette/Siegfried I’ve seen thus far.  I would also say that this production is probably my favorite of the classically oriented versions of Swan Lake I’ve seen as well.

The structure is pretty standard fare for a Swan Lake, beginning with Siegfried’s birthday (though this one is outdoors…an unusual, but refreshing choice) with plenty of hearty, festive dancing.  When Anthony Dowell enters, he flashes a devilish grin to his subjects and it’s one of those utterly charming, handsome heartbreaker smiles and all you can think is “oh, Anthony…” and heave a heavy sigh.  We all know Siegfried screws up, but as soon as Dowell smiled the way he did, I just knew this going to be a Soviet-era happy ending.  Sometimes I worry I think I see that smile in real life and think I might be going insane, but that’s another story…anyway, the choreography is nice (definitely some Ashton in there) and I’d like to point out that in the coda for the pas de trois, one of the women ends a diagonal series of jumps with FOUR, yes FOUR entrechat six in a row, which is something quite common in choreography for men, so not only does that deserve a high-five but it also means the ladies out there can’t rest on their laurels when it comes to those nasty little entrechat six!  Meanwhile, that wasn’t the only challenging of the status quo in male/female specific choreography as later on in Act III, in a male pas de deux one of the men does a saut de chat with his arms in third, which in some schools of thought could be considered a vile emasculation of the male danseur.  Well, maybe vile emasculation is exaggerating a bit, but it sounds funny…anyway, Act I ends with Siegfried’s solo, and I kid you not when I say Dowell’s performance in it was quite possibly the most perfect bit of dancing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.

Act II is again a “no touchie” zone, with the only major difference I could see being a moment where Siegfried’s hunting party actually appears on stage and they’re about to shoot at the flock of swans and Siegfried comes in to stop them.  This of course comes after Siegfried and Odette’s flawless, first pas de deux.  When Makarova enters, she does the most beautiful arm movements, the most luxurious backwards arches of her back and she even makes a simple lunge sing.  Together, I love the way Makarova and Dowell shade the characters because it isn’t entirely love at first sight; Dowell’s Siegfried is bewildered for most of the pas de deux, recognizing the fact that oh, he just saw a swan turn into a woman and doesn’t really give into love until later.  Similarly, Makarova holds back a little as a frightened and timid Odette, running from Siegfried until the end of the first pas de deux where she lets her curiosity take over.  This is of course, when Von Rothbart enters in his strigine glory…well, at least it should have gone something like that but I wasn’t a huge fan of the Von Rothbart owl costume.  In fact, it’s probably my only major criticism because I felt the design made him look more like a pterodactylic peacock (for the record, the word used to describe a peacock-like animal is “pavonine”).  It’s also unfortunate that Von Rothbart isn’t much of a dancing role (his massive wings being so unwieldy and all) but the focus of Act II, Odette and Siegfried’s romantic first meeting is tender, which is aided by the fact that Makarova works to a snail pace tempo.  I actually think rubato is often abused today, with many dancers using slower tempos but without purpose.  I’m not a fan of slowing the tempo just for the sake of slowing the tempo—it has to be done if the dancer feels it will allow them to add something to the character, and not just be seen as additional time to show off an extension.  I had no problems with Makarova’s tempo, because she works it brilliantly.

What also makes Makarova’s slower adagio more successful is the contrast it provides when she appears as Odile in Act III.  She actually uses faster tempi like in the Black Swan variation, which makes quite a difference.  Makarova’s Odile is very business-like; she enters, she seduces, she laughs maniacally when Siegfried realizes what’s going on and she leaves.  It’s the complete opposite of say, Patrice Bart’s Swan Lake, where Odile is able to seduce Siegfried in a much different manner.  I forgot to write this in my review, but in that staging Odile lures Siegfried by coming close enough for him to get a glance, but then one of Von Rotbart’s other maidens will get in his way.  This happens I think four times and by the fourth time Siegfried is blinded with frustration and the thought that Odile could be an imposter doesn’t even cross his mind.  The Royal Ballet, on the other hand takes the direct approach and no qualms are made as to Odile’s true identity.  Makarova is marvelous as Odile, spicing things up a little bit with a little more élan and a little determination to get through those fouettés.  Every Odile I’ve seen thus far has done thirty-two single fouettés, which doesn’t bother me at all.  In fact, thirty-two singles may very well be harder than throwing in some doubles because if you do a double pirouette you get to pull in and just worry about holding yourself up, but doing two singles in the same span of time means having to work through the foot, plié, rond de jambe and spring back up to relevé again.  That’s a lot of work. (Side note: the national dances are pretty typical but the Italian dance is awesome and gets tremendous, well deserved applause)

Finally, it’s time for Act IV; reconciliation, suicide pact, and happily ever after (life).  What I loved about this act was that again, we’re made to wait for it.  Odette doesn’t forgive Siegfried immediately and the act of forgiveness and the apology, are danced out.  Sometimes these redemptive moments in ballet can be reduced to a hurried set of mimed gestures immediately followed by the pretty pas de deux, rather than sustaining the emotions throughout.  With Makarova/Dowell, you get to see the whole process unfold.  Well, I suppose you would REALLY see it if I posted the clip:

All in all, I’m sold on this Swan Lake.  Makarova is the epitome of the cygnine (I’m totally about these animal adjectives today!) and if anybody asks why I would add this to my collection I’d say “Anthony Dowell made me do it.”  Nobody could resist that Act I smile.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

24 Nov

After being beat over the head with the Siegfried stories that was the first three Swan Lakes, I was in need of something different.  Luckily, Karena lent me Patrice Bart’s production for the ‘Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin’ (one of these days I need to learn a little German; or at the very least, a German accent).  Going in, all I knew was that this version has an “interesting elaboration on the part of the Queen,” but I had no idea how truly different it would end up being!

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, after the first few minutes when it became clear that this was no ordinary Swan Lake, I pondered what makes a successful reinterpretation of a classic story, a topic I revisit in my head from time to time.  Sometimes, it doesn’t work…like Lacotte’s La Sylphide versus the Bournonville (which admittedly, I didn’t mind Lacotte’s version, but it’s the one I saw first and Ah dinnae know any better) but sometimes it’s glorious.  Though not ballet, West Side Story as a re-imagination of Romeo and Juliet is my favorite example that comes to mind, though it is most assured that Shakespeare fanatics would be horrified at the comparison.  It does seem to generate controversy and a “love-it-or-hate-it” result with little middle earth.  I’m sure that’s the case for Bart’s Swan Lake, because there are a number of artistic liberties that are sure to divide the flocks.

For starters, Bart removes his staging from a generic fairy tale setting with castles and sorcerers and places it in a specific era; my best guess is something similar to Edwardian, but a…German (?) equivalent, so we’re looking at late 19th century (some European history buff out there is cringing to death with my assessment).  I’m just basing my ballpark guess on the costuming and the fact that the name Siegfried is of Germanic origin, as is the surname ‘Von Sommerstein,’ which belongs to…Benno!  If I understand correctly, a ‘Von’ generally indicates nobility so we are to understand that Benno’s role is more significant in this production.  However, Benno isn’t the only one to be promoted—so is Von Rotbart (no ‘h’…and it’s Prime Minister von Rotbart to you!).  Even more important than any of the above though, is the Queen as this Swan Lake is largely told from her perspective.  From the opening overture where we see her sheltering the young prince, to a melancholic solo at the beginning of the second act where she sort of bereaves a painting of the prince, wondering why he fell in love with Odette…but I’m getting ahead of myself here, so I’ll rewind.

So it begins with the vignette of Siegfried’s childhood, with the Queen always at his side and it’s pretty clear that Siegfried has a sheltered upbringing with an overbearing mother.   After a little skip in time, it’s Siegfried’s twenty-first birthday and a sort of emancipation celebration at that because now, Siggy is a man!  The Queen isn’t particularly thrilled about it, though they do dance an Oedipal pas de deux to Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux so despite Siggy’s desire for freedom he is still fighting a sense of loyalty towards the Queen.  Unique in this scene is that we’re actually introduced to Von Rotbart, who is a consort of sorts to the Queen.  If I recall correctly, Von Rothbart (with an ‘h’) is typically introduced in Act II, when Siegfried goes to the lakeshore, so I found it an interesting choice to humanize Von Rotbart and give him more of a presence throughout the ballet.  In the first couple of scenes I feel in love with Bart’s choreography…while I’m weary of French tinkering a la Lacotte, I found his choreography to be imaginative and refreshing.  He gives interesting facings, quick footwork, will throw in a clockwise turn in a counterclockwise pattern and manipulates the classical vocabulary just enough to make it different but not foreign.

Anyway, we get to the lakeshore after Siggy refuses an invitation by Benno to join a hunt, and Siggy does his “woe is me” solo that is quite commonplace, though usually in a more idealistic context (as it’s typically established early on that he is to choose a bride).  Benno arrives to find Siggy and bring his birthday rifle (not a crossbow!), encouraging him to hunt but is pushed away.  Enter Odette, and the usual ensues…man sees bird, bird transforms into woman, man declares love for woman-bird, except this time there’s a short interaction afterward between Benno and Siegfried that indicates Benno is actually in love with Siegfried, who dismisses his advances and coldly rejects him.   Regardless, we’re left at the end of the first act with the usual “magic-spell-that-can-only-be-broken-by-true-love.”

As aforementioned, the beginning of the second act has an agonizing solo as she can’t bear the thought of Siegfried leaving her clutches for Odette, and during the ball the next day, she hatches a scheme with Von Rotbart to ensure the swan spell on Odette can’t be broken.  In a unique twist, she is the instigator of “Operation Odile” while Von Rotbart is her pawn.  They of course succeed, Odette appears and Siggy is grief-stricken when he realizes the extent to which the Queen is manipulating him as well as the betrayal of Benno, for as the sole witness of Siegfried’s swancapade, it was he who told the Queen (though this is never explicitly depicted in the ballet).  Talk about drama!  What makes this interesting is that Siegfried and Odette’s tryst is not as romantic as we’d like to believe…I thought of them as two souls in search of freedom, and a love between them happened to be the gateway to that.  In that sense, I neither saw Siegfried as a chivalrous hero nor Odette as a heartbroken, virtuous creature.  She almost selfishly refuses to reconcile with Siegfried in the end, never once making eye contact with him in their final pas de deux, rejecting him as quickly as he did to Benno.  The mercy a typical Odette shows at the end of the ballet I think is what can make it romantic and yet this production chooses to strip that away, making Odette a flawed character indeed.

Out of all the Swan Lake DVDs thus far, I’m going to go ahead and say this was by far my favorite, for many reasons.  I loved the 19th century setting, the humanization of the characters and the fleshing out thereof.  Most good stories have a multitude of fully formed characters and by actually making the Queen, Von Rotbart and Benno more significant, I felt that Bart’s production emphasized the story and not an idealistic romance between a man and an unobtainable woman, in a divertissement-loaded classical ballet.  Even the principal characters took part in the national dances, for example the Queen and Von Rotbart did the Russian dance, with Von Rotbart having this amazing solo with exceptionally nimble footwork.  Torsten Handler did an incredible job with it, in a very dare I say, sexy interpretation of the role, with an amazing save on the final pirouette that was a little off-kilter and could have been disastrous.  Here he is with the Queen, danced by Bettina Thiel who has a sublime regality to her movement:

Oliver Matz was wonderful as a boyish and confused Siegfried, who saw in his capability of hurting Odette, the loss of his innocence and perhaps a resemblance to the Queen’s lack of compassion that drove him mad (enough to strangle Von Rotbart and commit suicide!).  There were also moments in his earlier solos, like in the first act where he executed these gorgeous pirouettes a la seconde, EN DEDANS, which I believe are a hellish nightmare skill and I often call them “women’s work” because it’s more common in female variations, but this is the second Swan Lake to have them for the male so I fear an irrational, sexist attitude on my part is at fault.  Matz even horrified me because he did them in both directions, but I suppose I shall have to learn to take inspiration from it because his technique was superb.  Steffi Scherzer was his Odette/Odile, and while a bit cautious as the latter I thoroughly enjoyed her Odette, fragile, naïve, with an air of mystery.  Especially in the Odette variation by the lakeshore, she had some extraordinary balances that just sang (the variation begins about two minutes in) and her diagonal of perfectly controlled pirouettes made my jaw drop:

The above video isn’t the best example (ironically, because of the soloist swans), but a lot of credit is due to the corps de ballet in this particular DVD…I thought they were stupendous!  Just clean, efficient and magical…one of the finest corps de ballet performances I have seen (ever!).

If I had to describe this Swan Lake in one word, it would be “sophisticated.”  The characters, story, costumes, sets…it has so much going for it it’s hard for me to believe that someone wouldn’t delight in it…but inevitably some Swan Lake purists do and I’m sure many find Patrice Bart’s interpretation a bastardization of a timeless classic.  They might recommend a more canonical Swan Lake for the first time viewer, but I say to hell with that…watch ANY Swan Lake and make your own decisions!  It really doesn’t matter which one you see first because the one that makes the most important impression is the one that does—that’s all there is to it.

Third time was not a charm…

20 Nov

The third installment of Swan Lake Month spotlights a supposedly special one, the performance of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn with the Vienna State Opera.  Theirs is a legendary partnership and from what I can find, this Swan Lake, along with a production of Romeo and Juliet with the Royal Ballet are the only commercially available full length recordings starring them.  There are a few more videos of various pas de deux that offer glimpses into the depth of their partnership, but the emotional involvement of a grand pas de deux just isn’t the same if you don’t get to see the context from which it was born.

Now I’m no Swan Lake connoisseur, but I really don’t think I liked this one.  I wanted to, because after all it is Fonteyn/Nureyev but there was a lot going on that didn’t sit well with my personal preferences.  This staging had choreography by Nureyev himself, and it should come as no surprise that this too would be the story of Prince Siegfried.  However, I think Nureyev took it just a wee little bit too far.  First of all, this was quite the hack job of Tchaikovsky’s score, which is fairly common for Swan Lake but there were some things that were just bizarre choices.  For example (and the easiest for me to pick out) is the use of the supplementary Pas de Deux music.  The pas de deux itself is used in Act III as intended, for Siegfried and Odile, however both variations and the coda are used in Act I, with the female variation being performed by an unnamed character at Siegfried’s party, the male variation being performed by Siegfried and the coda as a pas de cinq with Siegfried.  If it feels like I’m writing Siegfried as every other word, it’s because I pretty much am…Nureyev may as well have called his staging: SIEGFRIED! (and a swan). The juggling around of music is forgivable because like I said, it’s common in Swan Lake to sort of pick and choose…but while not a glaring flaw it wasn’t exactly favorable (I did however appreciate some of Nureyev’s choreography here, like in the female variation he has the dancer do some work in épaulée).

However, watching this Swan Lake has reinforced what I’ve long known to be true about Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; it is by far the most harmonious and precise interpretation of the music.  In fact, other than a few moments I wasn’t terribly impressed by Nureyev’s choreography.  While staying true to classical structure, I felt a certain lack of phrasing and smooth transitions between the phrases.  There were a lot of pauses in certain poses and not always musically accented…it felt like the choreography just wasn’t finding the right space in the score.  Speaking of space, there wasn’t much of the physical variety either; the Vienna State Opera corps de ballet was incredibly cramped and could barely keep from bumping into each other.

However, Nureyev is a compelling dancer.  I found his makeup garish (heavy on the blue eye shadow!) and while I understand the need for some exaggeration in stage makeup, it appeared that this was a version made for film, thus offering closer views.  As a “made for film” version, there was no audience and possibly no live audio track (though the faint scuffing of shoes could be heard if there was no music playing).  Still, there was an odd, slightly boyish charm about Nureyev paired with an interesting technique; I didn’t feel Nureyev’s technique was the purest and most refined—in fact, maybe even a little stiff—but there was a rawness to it that drew me in.  Similarly, it was Fonteyn’s emotional rawness that I enjoyed in her performance as Odette/Odile.  There was something genuinely magical about the way she would even tilt her head to rest on Siegfried’s shoulder, or when in the fourth act, Siegfried rushes in and ruffles the feathers of every swan until he finally finds his Odette, a heavy-hearted mix of grief and joy.  I also loved when she entered as Odile in Act III, she gave this perfectly timed shifty glance to Von Rothbart, a fleeting cue to let us know she’s an imposter before she begins acting like Odette.

As far as some differences are concerned, there is a pretty substantial truncation of soloist roles, like Von Rothbart, who essentially doesn’t dance at all.  Also, there is no Benno and even the maidens from which Siegfried is initially to choose his bride are lumped into one dance with no distinctions between them.  Act III becomes a traffic jam of divertissements, with the maidens, a few of the national dances (which now serve absolutely no purpose) and then the Black Swan pas de deux.  An interesting choice in Act III though was the omission of Odette—it’s Siegfried who gradually comes to the realization that Odile and Von Rothbart have duped him, again highlighting Siegfried’s internal dialogue.  Act II was mostly untouched (I think Nureyev added…surprise, a solo for Siegfried), and it seems most productions tend to leave the Ivanov-Gorsky choreography alone…I suppose it has the auspicious “no touchie” aura.  Nureyev’s Act IV, however, contains a strange ending in which Siegfried dies in a flood, unleashed by Von Rothbart by the lake.  It’s awfully melodramatic, and Nureyev was quite indulgent in his death, dark fabric billowing around him as the deadly water.  Each time I thought he was submerged and drowning, he came up again, still fighting and he even manages to cling on to a tree to see Odette flying away as a swan, before finally drowning.  It wasn’t an ending I found particularly satisfying or even all that tragic…but I also had the issue of trying to rationalize in geological terms how a lake could violently flood like that (conclusions included the breaking of a natural dam in what would have had to have been a fairly mountainous region, the breaching of a crater wall at a lake that formed in an extinct volcano, or a jökulhlaup…had Nureyev thought to set his Swan Lake near a glacier).

All in all, probably my least favorite of the three so far.  Perhaps my expectations were too high given the circumstances of a Fonteyn/Nureyev recording but while there were some wonderful moments but for various reasons I felt disengaged with the ballet as a whole.  I know looking for logic is somewhat futile in a classical ballet, but this was just too indulgent in Nureyev’s fancies…I’m all for expanding certain roles if necessary but not without purpose.  I have a feeling this probably isn’t on the top of the list when it comes to a woman’s favorite Swan Lake.  I suppose it’s a good one for the die-hard Fonteyn/Nureyev fan, and they have a truly genuine chemistry that shines in their pas de deux, but I suspect they’ve been better in other filmed performances.


Svansjön Nummer Två

14 Nov

Swan Lake Month continues with selection number two, the staging by Sir Peter Wright as performed by the Royal Swedish Ballet.  Like the Bolshoi production, this one also tells the story from Siegfried’s point of view, except as a gothic tragedy rather than the happy ending the Bolshoi goes with (which is characteristic of Soviet-era art).  Siegfried is danced by Anders Nordström, Odette/Odile by Nathalie Nordquist, the Queen by Markette Kaila, Baron von Rothbart by Christian Rambe and Benno by Johannes Öhman.  At this point, it should occur to you as it did to me that I didn’t mention Benno at all in my review of the Bolshoi DVD—he wasn’t in it—so there you go.

This Swan Lake begins with a catalyst; Wright wanted to develop the character of the prince more and so it begins with the funeral of Siegfried’s father…who apparently happened to die right around Siegfried’s twenty-first birthday, which is quite dramatic but I suppose not outside the realm of possibility.  We are meant to see the melancholy that hovers around the prince, to help us understand his reluctance in enjoying his birthday celebration, despite Benno’s efforts to cheer him up.  Here’s where early differences can be seen, such as the pas de trois where either Benno or Siegfried (obviously, depending on the production) dances with two courtesans but Wright has it begin with Benno and then Siegfried joins in with a solo (with a horrifying en dedans pirouette a la seconde, which we all know is women’s work) and various pas de trois/quatre dances.  Queen mama makes an unexpected appearance and is horrified that Siegfried is enjoying himself when they should be in mourning and reminds him that he is to choose a bride, which gives further insight as to why Siegfried is so depressed; the Queen’s insistence on marriage makes it pragmatic and thus an inhibitor to his freedom.  At some point he also gets the crossbow (and a GIANT one at that) and after Benno spots a wedge of swans, is urged to take it for a test drive.

An excerpt of the Pas de Trois, with Siegfried and two courtesans:

I have to say that Philip Prowse, who designed the sets and costumes did amazing work.  Act I was mostly a monochromatic color scheme of dark grayish-blues, a relatively straightforward expression of the somber atmosphere after the death of the King.  Act II is a lakeside act, so mostly dark with white, luminous swans and a gorgeous, Stygian Von Rothbart costume (as an owl) that melded in and out of the set.  Act III returns to the palace, except with new lighting that paints everything in sizzling reds (Act IV, is another lakeside act with white swans).  It’s rather simple, but in many ways the drastic contrast between Acts I and III made it feel like an entirely new ballet.  This is aided by the fact that Wright’s choreography undergoes some changes; I actually felt like Act I was pretty rigid and rather academic while Act III was much more vibrant and imaginative.  By breathing new life into the separate acts, the dreaded divertissements were actually quite enjoyable and cleverly woven into the story.

Now Act III is very interesting…lots of good things and some odd.  Wright reduces the number of national dances to three and structures it differently by having each delegation dance followed by a variation from their respective female suitors.  If I recall the score correctly, Wright uses the Czardas followed by the Intrada from the Pas de Six, the Mazurka paired with Variation IV from the Pas de Six, and the Danse Napolitaine coupled with the female variation from the supplementary Act III Pas de Deux (aka, the female variation from Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux).  Then the three maidens dance a coda, again from the supplementary Pas de DeuxBack when I was researching the Black Swan Grand Pas de Deux, I stated that I hadn’t come across any examples using the female variation and coda from the supplementary Pas de Deux, but lo and behold here’s one!  It was kind of bizarre seeing different choreography to my beloved Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and personally, I think Balanchine’s choreography is much more suited to it…but I digress.  Here’s a fun fact for you though; after the three maidens do their dances and Siegfried refuses to marry any of them, a fourth contingent arrives with their ambassador being Baron Von Rothbart.  What I found deliciously hilarious was that Von Rothbart’s people perform to the Danse Espagnole, so apparently Von Rothbart is a Spaniard.  Unfortunately the amount of dancing is decreased for Spanish Von Rothbart as he doesn’t do a variation in this production (he does in the Bolshoi, where his contingent is actually a flock of black swans!).

One of the central ideas in this staging seems to be making the transformations, like Von Rothbart from owl to human, or Odette from swan to human and to Odile, very clear.  When the diminutive Nordquist enters the stage as Odile, you can sense an enormously villainous and I really enjoyed this interpretation of the character.  While others may opt for the subtler layering of an imposter Odette over Odile herself, Nordquist is downright evil with a dash of crazy.  The softness of her arms remain but there’s an added dimension of malevolence in her hands, like at the end of the pas the deux where many ballerinas will arch their heads back in the iconic attitude position with the prince supporting her; Nordquist hits the final note with a capricious flick of the wrists.

Nordquist as Odette (note the transformation at the end, and Von Rothbart’s Valkyrie helmet):

Compared to Nordquist as Odile (note crazy glances):

Overall, I think Sir Peter Wright’s Swan Lake is a nice one, and makes things very clear for modern audiences.  In that sense, it may not be for the die-hard Laker because they may feel like they’re being beaten over the head with the plot and desire nuance and innuendo.  I would actually recommend showing this to someone who is perhaps interested in ballet, but afraid that they “won’t get it” (since that seems to be a common excuse).  The DVD is also loaded with extra features like interviews with Sir Peter Wright himself, an interview with artistic director Peter Jacobsson, a narrated libretto and interviews with Nordström and Nordquist (the former of which was a little awkward, but I commend him for doing the interview in English, which is probably not his native language).  It’s a well-rounded Swan Lake experience, unfettered by overly sophisticated ideas or a useless jester.

As for my hypothesis…I’m still on the idea of the pursuit and knowing the woman as she wants to be seen.  In this instance, there is an element of remorse on Siegfried’s behalf that is necessary to make him real and forgiveness on Odette’s behalf to ensure that she is the smarter, more compassionate one between the two of them.

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?)