The ballet world has a curious custom of remaking its oldest, best-preserved, and most cherished icons. Reasons for this ritual of inverse homage can be anything from the practical (costumes wear out and sets fade; new ones might as well be different) to the creative (for some, reinventing history is an irresistible challenge).
Still, the idea of updating a monument seems paradoxical. The key question is always: is it still Swan Lake? Two makeovers this spring took drastically different approaches.
In Boston, the production was traditional, and the performing focus was on the audience. Boston Ballet’s 1990 Swan Lake stayed in the repertory through 1998, but I wasn’t familiar enough with it to detect specific alterations in Mikko Nissinen’s new version last month. Like The Nutcracker and most 19th-century classics nowadays, Swan Lake represents an approximation of the original choreography, with adjustments to cover perceived imperfections and meet current demands. Dancers have different strengths; theaters are different sizes. Steps get eroded or forgotten. Stage patterns go out of fashion and new ones get invented. The producers count on the audience to understand a central concept that preserves the ballet’s identity, no matter how that concept gets reconfigured.
The crux of Swan Lake is that the Prince, a noble but weak young man, can’t distinguish between true love and infatuation. The Swan Queen, usually played by one ballerina, has two identities. Odette, the "white" persona, is being held captive by the evil Rothbart. Only a lover’s devotion can release her from the spell. But in collusion with Rothbart, the "black" swan, Odile, seduces the prince and causes him to break his promise, and that brings about various unhappy endings.
What marks Swan Lake, as much as the plot, is Tchaikovsky’s music, especially the mighty, doom-shadowed Swan theme. Few balletgoers may be erudite enough to tell an altered step from its original, but many of us recognize the picky little phrase that introduces the unison dance of the four cygnets. Other chunks of the music call up images in my mind — the act-two ensemble’s hops in arabesque, the expansive développés and reverse turns of the two big swans, the pas de deux where a melancholic solo violin underlies the growing trust between Odette and the Prince. And the sparkly mazurkas and waltzes that sweep through the party acts.
As a theatrical piece, Swan Lake alternates between festive (acts one and three) and elegiac moods (acts two and four). In the 1895 version that’s come down to us as a classic, two choreographers defined these sensibilities, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Petipa’s court scenes and rousing ethnic dances may represent the dangerous, sensual aspects of the story; Ivanov’s formal corps patterns and pas de deux stand for a tragic Apollonian purity.
Nissinen’s Swan Lake retains all these elements, plus the opulent palace sets and hazy lakesides of designer John Conklin. In both performances I saw last month, the company was encouraging the audience to applaud spectacular moments at the expense of the ballet’s poetic through line. Of course, one of the reasons Swan Lake endures is that it provides opportunities for superb classical dancing, everything from the pyrotechnics of the Black Swan pas de deux to the romantic White duo, the flashy tarantella and csárdás, the pristine unanimity of the corps of swans. But it was never meant only as a parade of tricks.
I think Natalia Makarova started the vogue for exaggeratedly slow passages, some 30 years ago, in Giselle. She did it to extend the metaphor of a sorrowing heroine floating on some attenuated borderline between life and death. But with most other dancers, it’s an affectation. Both Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee and associate conductor Mark Churchill supplied wads of funereal tempi for Boston’s "white" acts. The orchestra has also taken to jolting into high speed after one of these dirges. It frequently slowed down at the end of a difficult phrase — pirouettes or beats, for instance — to give the dancer time to finish in perfect position.
All this makes the dancers look more impressive and prompts the audience to voice its approval. But it also distorts the musical line, which is to say the expressive flow, of given scenes as well as the whole evening. Nissinen’s Swan Lake is realistic in this way, for all its fairy-tale trappings. Guest performers at the Prince’s birthday party bow graciously to the audience, then sweep out without so much as acknowledging the Queen Mother on her throne. One night Lorna Feijóo exercised her prodigious technique even in spots where the story didn’t call for thrills. The audience got so worked up it was screaming when she swooned and clapping in time to her fouettés. It even applauded when the swans bourréed into their first formation.
What I liked so much about Pennsylvania Ballet’s controversial Swan Lake by Christopher Wheeldon, which premiered in Philadelphia earlier this month, was its absolute trust in fantasy. Without waiving the ballet’s technical demands, Wheeldon shifted the whole affair onto a different plane, forcing the audience to entertain a new concept of the plot and the characters. His Swan Lake is a sustained fiction. The tempi are variable but brisk; the story doesn’t come to a full stop so the audience can demonstrate its approval.
This Swan Lake is almost intimate, theatrically involving. The three-walled set (by Adrianne Lobel) opens out to bigger spaces that are wonderfully lit (by Natasha Katz) to suggest not just an outer environment but places where the on-stage action continues. The chorus of swans move outside during the act-two pas de deux, and you see them in the distance, shadowing their Queen as she gradually yields to the Prince. In act three, the partygoers tumble out onto a terrace, making Odile and the Prince’s duet a clandestine affair.
When the overture ends, on a series of apprehensive chords, what we hear as the curtain goes up, instead of bustling party preparations, is the modest little Valse Bluette, lifted from the last act and transcribed for piano. This shocking but brilliant departure tells us to forget all our expectations. The scene is a room, a dance studio or entryway, with a barre along the wall. Girls in knee-length tutus enter and pause in a string of poses taken from Edgar Degas paintings.
Then the wall goes up and we’re in a bigger studio, with an enormous framed mirror and high French doors. The customary music resumes, and the rest of the ballet, with its music, continues much as we know it. The story begins with Degas’s ballet girls, their teacher, a gentleman patron who’s led to a chair with a good view of the girls, and a young man who could be the choreographer. Instead of a castle with a prince and his royal retinue, we see a sweaty dance rehearsal, and the ballet they’re rehearsing is Swan Lake.
Wheeldon layers his new libretto on top of the old one. The music and the steps reflect the familiar Swan Lake, but the Queen Mother is a bored supernumerary and the Prince’s tutor is the balletmaster. As the dancers put on bits of costume and run through the dances, you’re drawn into the action. You go along with it, believing it as you do a dream. The rehearsal ends, the company goes home, but the young man stays behind, absorbed in his own imaginings — perhaps he’s thinking about a new ballet — and discovers the swans.
Wheeldon’s clever reworking doesn’t always track the standard plot, but the premise of a dream allows for implausible slippages and jump cuts. You can make up your own explanation when the rich playboy who visited the dance studio morphs into the vicious, tattered Rothbart with his captive harem of swans. In the third act, the whole setting moves up a couple of decades from Degas’s 1870s to Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1890s. The dance studio is turned into a cabaret, with a new take on the divertissement dances: a seductive Spanish trio for a Jane Avril look-alike and two partners; a sleek Russian lady who does a decorous striptease; a bawdy non-Neapolitan can-can.
After the Black Swan’s betrayal, the whole back of the set flies out. The stylish debauchery of the nightclub gives way to an expanse of churning water and threatening sky. The swans return and attack Rothbart. But neither their retaliation nor the Prince’s remorse can undo his mistake. After Odette has apparently drifted away to die of a broken heart, he surfaces from his dream and finds himself back in the studio. At the final curtain, he sees the very same girl among the coryphées returning to work in the studio.
Some critics have taken offense at the lowlife third act and dismissed Wheeldon’s thoroughgoing transformation of the work. For me, the very fact that it simultaneously resembled and camouflaged the old familiar ballet made for a riveting experience. Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, a beautiful theater in the form of a small European opera house, gave the modest scale of Wheeldon’s concept an elegant frame. After the pomp and remoteness of the show in Boston’s immense Wang Theatre, this was a Swan Lake I could savor again.
Issue Date: June 25 - July 1, 2004
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