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Von Krahl Theater

'Swan Lake’

Concept, choreography, direction: Peeter Jalakas and Sasha Pepelyaev with additional choreography Tatiana Gordeeva and Darja Buzovkina

by Tiit Tuumalu

January - February 2003 -- Kanuti Gildi Saal, Talinn

 

Pepeljajev and Jalaka's “Swan Lake” investigates the mechanism of power

The fact that those who attempted the coup d'état in August 1991, when the tanks rolled in the streets of Moscow, decided to broadcast “The Swan Lake” was not by chance. Already Stalin had turned classical ballet, especially “The Swan Lake,” into an instrument of totalitarian power and his example was later followed by Castro, Mao Zedong, etc. After all, ballet ideally suited the demands of the system – it was mechanical, automatic, and involved minimal thinking - it resembled a military unit submitted to strict drill rather than an independent field of art.


Mechanical is beautiful

“The Swan Lake” suited this paradigm especially well – the swans represented the ideal of absolute beauty, best expressed in the straight lines and the strict geometry of the 2nd and 4th acts in Lev Ivanov's choreography. What did not fit the paradigm – for instance the tragic ending – was altered. Yuri Grigorovich’s innovative version naturally suffered heavy censure and acquired a perverse ending in a duel where Siegfried floors Rothbart, and love celebrates earthly victory.

Sasha Pepeljajev and Peeter Jalakas have been inspired by the ideological approach to “The Swan Lake,” although their version should rather be called a variation on the theme of “The Swan Lake.” Smooth narrative and clear-cut characters are here replaced by fragmentary substance where nothing is certain and easily determined. Even the characters can turn into Marx, Engels or Lenin, or become Rothbart or Siegfried.

The abundance of quotations, presenting things in another context, witty parallels created by means of video – the straight line of corps de ballet, for example, is compared with the brand new tractors emerging from the factory – this is the method of the production that proceeds almost wordlessly. Numerous works of postmodernist Russian writers have been built up like that – it could perhaps be said that Pepeljajev is Russian dance theatre's Vladimir Sorokin ( Ed. a controversial Russian novelist ).

The image of a lake of tears runs through the entire production as a strong subtext. After all, Tiina Tauraite's Ottilie weeps practically incessantly - the inhabitants, first of all Odette, have been deceived, they were promised a better life but in the end taken for a ride. In that sense the happenings on the stage bear a suspiciously strong resemblance to the story of the Soviet system – abounding with promises not kept, dreams of earthly paradise, never to be realised, replaced by hell instead. Or in other words – the best aims led to the usual outcome!

The chalice of suffering, however, is never bottomless. Pepeljajev and Jalakas's idea of the harmony and absolute humility of the “bewitched” swans starts showing cracks – the nameless mass splits into individuals, each of whom, as it transpires, has their own story to tell.

In the end the dance of the swans no longer succumbs to Tchaikovsky's music either. Sergei Zagni's hypnotic trance produces shifted movement where servility is replaced by aggression, reconciliation with threat. The experiment is over - the “revolutionaries” disrobe and fly off.

This is hence a very sad story, although the tone is set by outward cheerfulness, almost a carnival spirit – the mixture is typical of Pepeljajev's earlier works. One absurd and witty image – wholly revealed to those who have been children of the revolution themselves – follows another, and so forth until the very end. No wonder that at some point there are no swans, but moving barrels, and their lids sound like the bells of Kremlin. Better than Stomp.


Ulfsak and 32 fouettés

The entire company performs impressively - Liina Vahtrik and Tiina Tauraite, Erki Laur and Taavi Eelmaa demonstrate excellent plasticity. To say nothing about Juhan Ulfsak, his neck-breaking trick – to roll himself like a cannonball, head first, from the rolling barrels straight into an empty one – this will certainly be recorded in the annals of Estonian theatre. Why can't this become an attraction, just like the 32 fouettés in the classical “Swan Lake” - after all, this last quite perverse act pumps a lot of adrenaline into the bloodstream.   It's so exciting to see whether the dancer will come down on all fours or not.

The dancers were a pleasant surprise - the Estonian ones Triin Lilleorg, Kärt Tõnisson and Anna-Liisa Lepasepp, additionally Tatjana Gordejeva, Darja Buzovkina and Olga Tsvetkova from Moscow. Pepeljajev's methods seem to have had an invigorating impact on them, just as it did in earlier productions for Taavet Jansen and Katrin Essenson.

It could be said that the traditional “Swan Lake” tries to impress on audiences the concept of “this is a story of love's all-conquering power” or “this work touches the deepest strings of the soul”. No soul strings are in sight in the version by Pepeljajev and Jalakas. Their “Swan Lake” is a sharp exploration of society and the mechanisms of power.

It poses more questions than it answers. I like that, because the enjoyment derived from answering far exceeds here whatever “spiritual experience” a traditional “Swan Lake” might offer.

This article by Tiit Tuumalu first appeared in the Estonian newspaper Postimees and was translated by Tiina Latts of The Estonian Institute.

 

Edited by Jeff.

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