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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Eight Reasons Why Swan Lake Endures

by Susan Yung

Mariinsky's Swan Lake. Photo: V. Baranovsky

Swan Lake is the one ballet I could imagine seeing every week without tiring of it—and I’m not alone in that sentiment. The Mariinsky Ballet brings five performances of the classic—with choreography by Konstantin Sergeyev after Petipa/Ivanov—to BAM starting Jan 15, with four ravishing different Odette/Odiles. Of all the ballets in the classical canon, what makes Swan Lake so timeless, and so worthy of revisiting?

1. Swan = Ballerina. Basically, a swan is the perfect spirit animal for a ballerina. It’s obvious, but a dancer in a full white tutu looks like a swan. Alright, you might have to conflate her flowing arms for an S-curved neck, alternating with flapping wings, but it’s a ready-made parallel. And details, such as in the Act I pas de deux, when Odette does tiny battus (flutters her foot against her ankle) in the closing moment, add texture and emotion to an already rich portrayal.

2. The music IS the movement. The movement perfectly fits Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score. Yes, it’s played a lot on WQXR, but there’s a reason why. It’s sturdy, romantic, lush, at times spare, and full of propulsive, building passages. (Gia Kourlas discussed the musicality in The New York Times, and the four Mariinsky swans’ thoughts about dancing the role.)

Just listen to the first few minutes of the overture, when the haunting opening clarinet line grows into a symphonic maelstrom... I dare you to not be moved. And how about in the famous (and oft-spoofed) Swan Quartet—when four dancers hold hands and move rapidly and precisely—could the devilish choreography be any more illustrative of its music?

Uliana Lopatkina and Danila Korsuntsev of the Kirov Ballet in Swan Lake.

3. We’re Complicated. The light/dark dual characters of Odette/Odile embody every woman. We may think of ourselves as one or the other, but we’re all complicated humans with a range of emotions. These two faces give a healthy expression to this duality.

4. The swan corps. The way the “wedge” (the term of art for a bunch of swans) masses together—at times vulnerable, at others ferociously protective—never fails to be tremendously moving. It’s analogous to being part of a community, a tribe. And how about the moment when the Prince reaches out to touch them, and they all flinch in unison? The audience gasps. Always.

5. The parties. Tchaikovsky’s music positively waltzes by itself. In the Prince’s birthday celebration (sometimes featuring a real maypole with interweaving ribbons), in the international dances... this danciest of rhythms is the ideal underlayment for grand socializing, which frames the primary drama revolving around Odette/Odile.

Danila Korsuntsev (center) of The Kirov Ballet in Swan Lake.

6. Unrequited, or requited, love. We all want a happy ending, which sometimes we get with Swan Lake (as in the Mariinsky’s version). Or sometimes we want tragedy, the refusal to go on living in a world without love. Swan Lake offers both depending on the company. The opening phrases of the Act III pas—the violin following the harp line—are nothing less than heartbreaking, in a good way.

7. Each Swan to Her Own. Odette/Odile is perhaps the consummate role for a ballerina. It requires technical virtuosity, stamina, and great dramatic breadth. Each dancer portrays the dual role uniquely, giving it her own flair and drawing on her life’s experience. It’s the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of work and artistry. A ballerina's Superbowl, if you will.

8. The Black SwanThis helped bring the great ballet into pop culture. Darren Aronofsky’s creepy rendition of Natalie Portman growing quills realistically depicted something we all fear happens behind closed dressing rooms doors, under all that tulle.

Natalie Portman dancing Odette in 2010's Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Put It All Together: Music, choreography, costumes, story, technique, artistry, and the power of one of the world’s great companies to support it—it all adds up to a perfect work of art.

The Mariinsky Ballet's Swan Lake plays the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House from January 15–23.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful ballet. Very disappointed by extremely rude staff member at BAM by name Raven. Behaved very inappropriate and spoke in a commanding tone