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Swan Lake – Whose Ballet Is It Anyway?
by Karen Webb


Much of the ballet world, audience and dancers alike, regard Swan Lake as “her” ballet: no matter how great the man dancing the role of Prince Siegfried is, the ballerina dancing the dual role of the Swan Queen Odette and her evil counterpart Odile steals the show. But Ballet West's artistic director Jonas Kage is trying to change all that. When his production of the timeless classic came to Ogden, audiences saw a Siegfried who does a little more than tote the ballerina around the stage.

“Siegfried really is the central character,” opined Kage, who has danced the role on numerous occasions. “He's onstage from practically the moment the curtain rises, and he remains onstage till the time the curtain drops. If he has no sense of character, if he loses his focus, you've lost the whole point of the story. Because in the end it's his story being told even more than the Swan Queen's.”

The last time the company performed the ballet, Kage cast only two couples; of the two male leads, only one dancer, Tong Wang, danced for Ballet West. Wang reprised his excellent rendering of the role on this trip out; he was joined by principal Seth Olson and guest soloist Chao Lemeng, visiting for this season from the People's Republic of China. Wang retained his original Odette, principal Maggie Wright. Olson's Odette was principal Jessica Harston; Chao danced with Michiyo Hayashi. While Hayashi has danced the two big pas de deux from Swan Lake as concert pieces, this was her first shot at a full-length production.

“This production really has Jonas' stamp on it,” said Wang, who has danced Siegfried in the production staged by the Kirov. “He really wants the male lead to be a strong character; he wants us to think about what we're doing rather than simply going through the motions.” “My father,” said Kage, “used to warn me about what he called 'looking through the bushes,' by which he meant that when a male dancer indicates he is looking for something or someone, if he doesn't keep his focus and his character in place, it can look like he's doing just that.” And he mimes separating the branches of some ground level bushes while looking for nothing in particular.

Kage's other unique contribution to the production is a reconciliation pas de deux for the two main characters in the fourth act. Many other productions of the ballet include some dancing for Odette and Siegfried in the last act, but Kage has found them dramatically flat. “Really, in New York,” he commented, “you frequently find patrons who get up and leave after the Black Swan pas de deux, thinking there's nothing left worth seeing. So I decided to give the audience something worth staying for. There are some parts of the ballet you just don't tamper with most of the second act, for instance, or the Black Swan pas de deux but here I thought there was room for great improvement.”

Kage choreographed his pas de deux using music interpolated into the ballet from Tchaikovsky's score to Hamlet. And he choreographed it keeping in mind the poignancy of the ending Ballet West currently uses, where the lovers kill themselves, then are seen being reunited in Paradise. (The first production of the ballet the company did, staged by Louis Godfrey and Denise Schultze, kept the lovers alive while still dispatching the villain Von Rothbart, which left something to the imagination as far as the internal logic of the story was concerned.)

“Other companies put the lovers in a boat sailing off to Paradise,” says Kage, “which makes me feel like it looks like they're going fishing.” Where that ending frequently leaves the sets, the swan maidens, and often the deceased Von Rothbart also onstage, Kage has chosen to strike the set and achieve the effect of a glorious afterlife with lights, a simple Windows-like backdrop, and a lot of fog. “Actually,” he confided with a roguish smile, “the one idea I wanted to try was one we couldn't quite get working. I wanted to strike the set completely so completely the audience would be able to see all the way back into the wings. And I wanted a single backdrop with a door that opened to emit a great light, and Siegfried and Odette walking into that.”

Kage had given his Siegfrieds some latitude in their interpretation of the role; while the three danseurs perceived Siegfried's backstory in much the same way, each had his own idea about generating the character and portraying his motivations. For a start, all three men agreed that, till the ballet opens, he's lived a pampered life and is probably a bit bored with having things go all his own way all the time. “I think he wants an adventure,” posited Olson. “And when he goes off into the forest to shoot swans and finds one of them turning into a woman, an adventure is what he gets.” Chao and Wang agreed that, had Siegfried found a normal woman wandering in the forest, he would not have had his heart captured. “He is fascinated by Odette,” continued Wang, “but a part of that fascination is that this is a woman who has had an evil enchantment cast on her.”

When, in the next act, Von Rothbart arrives with his daughter Odile in tow the pair seek to beguile Siegfried into forswearing Odette each of the men had a slightly different response to her allure. “I feel he thinks it is Odette when he first sees her,” said Chao. “Then, because she's acting very differently from the Odette in Act II, he's not sure. Then her father Von Rothbart starts giving her instructions about how to act more like Odette, and he becomes convinced.” “I never realized,” Olson pointed out, “how much of the Black Swan choreography, at least for the ballerina, is based on the White Swan pas de deux. It really is a mockery of the material in the second act; it's what Odile is doing to convince Siegfried she's Odile.”

While Wang's idea about Siegfried's response to Odile was similar to Chao's, Olson took a different approach. “I think he's still looking for adventure,” explained Olson. “I think in the end he knows it's not Odette, but he let's himself be convinced. He just doesn't get at that point what the consequences will be.” “Creating the role itself,” said Wang, “it's important that you make the audience believe you are a prince, and a lot of that is the way you carry yourself onstage. If you come off looking like a peasant, the story just doesn't work. And, really, to make them believe, you first have to believe it yourself.”

All three men enjoyed the “moody prince” solo in the first act, a solo not all companies use. “When I performed the role in China,” said Chao, “in a very Russian-influenced production, the actual dancing was harder. There was a lot of balancing on one foot. In this one, I can concentrate more on what the character is thinking and feeling. In our version, of course, Siegfried and Odette don't die, the power of their love alone breaks the spell and kills Von Rothbart. But to me, this ending is more logical.”

Would the Siegfried of Act I have followed Odette into the lake? “No,” said Olson. “He really does a lot of growing up between the first and fourth acts. You know, at the beginning of the first act when his mother shows up and asks him if there's someone he loves, he mimes 'Oh, sure, Mom, I love you!' He's like a bratty little kid who knows just how to get what he wants. But then, by the end of the third act, he realizes what his betrayal has cost him has cost Odette and by the end of the fourth he has finally grown up enough to follow through on the consequences of his actions.”

The Story

Unlike many ballets, Swan Lake did not get off to an auspicious beginning. When Tchaikovsky first wrote the score as a commission for the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, symphonic music was not at all common in the ballet world. Most choreographers preferred music that was straightforward, flashy, and easy for the dancers to count. Where Swan Lake trades largely in emotion, the more typical ballet of the Imperial Russian or Classical Era was a study in technique and glitz. So the original choreographer, Julius Reisinger, a ballet master at the Bolshoi Theatre, really didn't know what to do with music of this caliber. His 1877 production was an unmitigated disaster.

Flash forward to a memorial for the composer's death at the Mariinsky Theatre in Leningrad in 1894. Choreographer Lev Ivanov decides to choreograph the second act of the ballet as a showcase piece. Its success inspired Marius Petipa, whose name and talent are associated with many of the big Russian ballets danced in the West today, to tackle the full-length work. Together, he and Ivanov produced most of the choreography for Swan Lake as it is danced all over the world today. Their wildly successful production, with Ivanov choreographing the “white” acts and Petipa the livelier first and third acts, premiered in 1895.

Ballet West's production opens with a short prologue in which the pre-enchantment Odette picking flowers in the forest; the sorcerer Von Rothbart appears, captures her and turns her into a swan. In the next scene, Prince Siegfried's friends are gathering to celebrate his birthday and coming of age. He enters, happy and carefree and dances with his guests. Shortly thereafter, his mother and her attendants enter. Mom has more than birthday wishes to convey. The mime runs like this:

Mom: What are you doing here?
Siegfried (evasive): Oh, nothing, just partying with my friends.
Mom (pulling him aside): Is there someone you love?
(Watch the action in the corps women here: they all start primping.)
Siegfried (thinking fast, dropping to one knee and holding the hem of her robe to his cheek): You bet! I love you, Mom!
Mom: Well, it's time you thought about getting married.

Siegfried deflates, but Mom softens the blow by handing him her present: a new crossbow, which his reaction says he thinks is really keen. But talk of marriage has cast a gloom over him. His friend Benno and two ladies from the local escort service dance to cheer him up and eventually succeed in drawing him back into the revelry. His tutor asks if he'd like to hear a story, then launches, with the court jester as a visual aid, into an account of the material we just saw in the prologue.

When the guests depart, Benno and the tutor do the two things that figure will cheer up any manly man: they ply Siegfried with drink and suggest he might want to take his new crossbow out into the woods and slaughter some innocent wildlife with it. This suggestion again imbues Siegfried's life meaning, and off he runs, but not before the tutor warns him to avoid the part of the forest where Odette was turned into a swan.

In the second act, we see Siegfried enter the forest and catch site of a swan. As he raises his crossbow to shoot, he starts in amazement: the swan has turned into a woman! She shies from him initially, then tells him her story in a long mime passage that runs like this:

Odette: I am a princess.
Siegfried: You are? Neat! I'm a prince!
Odette: Do you see this lake? It is filled with my mother's tears.
Siegfried: Tell on.
Odette: One day I was picking flowers in the forest when there came upon me a powerful sorcerer, who changed me into a swan. The spell can only be broken if I find a man who will love me, marry me, and always be faithful.
Siegfried (brightening): Oh, is that all? OK, I love you, and I will marry you and swear to be faithful.

Odette reaches for his outstretched hand (it's making the Boy Scout salute here) in wonder. She might have gone on to ask him if he realized the weight of the pledge he just made her, but at that moment Von Rothbart appears. As Odette pleads for Siegfried's life, Siegfried reaches for his crossbow in the hope that he can shoot the sorcerer, but Odette intervenes saying that if he shoots Von Rothbart, she too will die. Swan maidens now fill the stage: like Odette, they were once women, and they share the fate that allows her to assume her human form only between the hours of midnight and dawn. In this act are two of the most famous and most demanding pieces of choreography in the entire classical repertory: the White Swan pas de deux, which is slow and passionate, and the dance of the four cygnets, a brisk allegro.

Act III takes us to the ball the Queen has commanded so that Siegfried may choose a bride. The evening's entertainment includes a Neapolitan and Spanish dance and a czardas. Four eligible princesses dance flirtatiously with Siegfried, but when the Queen says in effect, “Now that you've danced with each of them for 10 seconds, tell me which one you love.” Her glare as he mimes that he loves none of them says he is in for some serious time out if he won't pick a bride, but at that moment Von Rothbart again appears, attired as a nobleman and with a woman who looks suspiciously like Odette in tow. This is, in fact, his daughter Odile, whom he has changed into Odette's likeness. His plan is for Odile so to beguile the Prince that he will think she is Odette and swear to marry her before all his guests. There follows the thrilling Black Swan pas de deux, which include some fancy pyrotechnics, including the exultant 32 fouetté turns that suggest Odile's sense of triumph.

Siegfried now tells the Queen he chooses Odile for his bride. Von Rothbart goes through the motions of making him swear to be faithful again, which he does. Oops! The instant he does so, Von Rothbart reveals the ruse. Siegfried has ruined Odette's chance of freeing herself and the swan maidens from the spell. Bewildered and grief-stricken, Siegfried, flees, leaving the court behind him in utter chaos.

Act IV takes place back at the lakeside. The swan maidens are awaiting Odette's return. She enters in tears: although she tried to warn Siegfried of the ruse, he succumbed. Now her only chance to escape the spell is death. Siegfried rushes in, distraught, and seeks for Odette. When the swans part to let him see her, he bemoans his stupidity, and the pair dance Kage's reconciliation pas de deux. Where the White Swan pas de deux was hopeful, this pas de deux is heavily colored with sorrow. Odette forgives Siegfried but now knows she can no longer go on living this way. Von Rothbart appears; a great storm sweeps the lake. The swans try to protect the couple. Odette mimes her intention to die, then proceeds toward the lake. Von Rothbart wrestles with Siegfried but the Prince's resolve is too strong. Miming his pledge of love as if to say he now understands the full weight of responsibility he must bear, he, too, throws himself into the lake. The swan maidens are released, Von Rothbart dies, and in the simple but moving apotheosis, we see Odette and Siegfried reunited in Paradise.

 

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Edited by Malcolm Tay.

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