The basic story is so ridiculous even Freud would break out in giggles. A mama’s boy falls for a female impersonator really into feathers who goes by the moniker #QueenOfTheSwans. He digs her divine Virgin in White get-up but can’t stop making googly eyes at a sexy fashionista in black who turns out to be her -get this – Evil Twin. Then there’s the problem of their pimp. Since our hero has also demonstrated from the outset that he’s a limp noodle when it comes to standing up to father figures, he’ll…oh never mind. I mean, would you keep a straight face if late one night a middle-aged guy suddenly jumped out of the bushes, ripped open his Bat-cape, and exposed you to…his sequined green bodysuit?
But every time I’m actually experiencing Swan Lake, my snarkiness about the plot just evaporates. This ballet – like the best of operas — simply lets you cry in the dark over how you yourself, younger and softer and in better shape, had once been a fool for love.
What’s really weird, though, is that most people with bucket-lists think that if you’ve seen one Swan Lake you’ve seen ‘em all. Wrong. So if you don’t go see Rudolf Nureyev’s 1984 version for the Paris Opera Ballet, still fresh and juicy after all these years, you will miss out on something big: a dramatically coherent and passionately danced dreamscape. This production, for once, succeeds in forcing the tired threads of the generic story into real narrative. To boot, it gives the male dancers of the corps – sans les plumes de ma tante — as much to do as the female ones.
Many, many, versions of this ballet exist. All of the steps of the first one from 1877, created in tandem with Tchaikovsky’s music and famed as a colossal flop, seem to have been lost. Every production we see today claims to be « after the original » 1895 version as devised by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for the Maryinsky Theater. Yet we probably should consider 1895’s as lost, too. Ballet, by definition, just keeps evolving.
Just imagine: not that long ago, the Prince only mimed and his bestie, Benno, did all the complicated partnering stuff. An annoying court jester still scampers about in some productions, boring everyone on either side of the footlights. Just imagine: in some productions, this big tearjerker comes to a happy end. Some constants: almost all the steps in Act II and Odile’s extended series of fouettés (where the ballerina whirls like an unstoppable top) in Act III. Imagine the challenge each leading ballerina faces: she must convince you that you must have seen two completely different leading ladies – one fragile and tender, the other violent and bad. But in some earlier versions, you did indeed see two different leading ladies…
Prince Siegfried has a nightmare where he looks on helplessly as a beautiful princess falls into the clutches of a half-human bird of prey. Before his eyes, the evil succubus transforms her into a swan and carries her off into thin air.
ACT ONE: THE CASTLE
It is the prince’s birthday. A crowd of young people, Siegfried’s friends, burst into the room, along with the prince’s Tutor Wolfgang (who bears a striking resemblance to the monster in Siegfried’s dream). Siegfried, aroused from his slumber, somewhat half-heartedly joins in their revels. He’s a melancholy prince, a dreamer.
The revel is interrupted by trumpet fanfare and the Queen Mother makes her entrance. She has come to congratulate her son upon his coming-of-age, but also to remind him of normal stuff. Her birthday gifts comprise a crown (do your duty) and a crossbow (shooting could provide some pleasure perhaps in the Freudian sense). As she points to her ring finger, the Queen Mother make it clear to the prince that both objects mean it’s time he took a wife (duty and/or pleasure?). At the ball in his honor tomorrow night, he will have to choose a bride. Eew! Her son goes limp at the mere thought.
Once they are sure that momma has gone back upstairs, Siegfried’s friends try to cheer him up: two girls and a boy perform a virtuosic pas de trois. Then the Tutor tells all the girls to fluff off. He gives the prince a dance lesson that involves a strong undercurrent of aggression: it looks like a power struggle rather than an initiation to the idea of the birds and the bees. The chorus boys break into one more rousing group dance-off, full of exhilaratingly complicated combinations, as they take leave.
The prince dances a sad solo while the Tutor glares at him. He has zero right to disapprove, for he’s not the prince’s father nor even his step-father. After once more bringing the prince to his knees, this oddly dominant employee suggests Siegfried go shoot his crossbow. In most productions, the Tutor is just a fat patsy who has nothing to do with evil. I happen to appreciate how, by sneakily combining our doubts about two characters, Nureyev’s production will soon merge both the Oedipal complex and Hamlet’s troubled relationship with male authority figures into one Really Big Bird.
We hear the “Swan theme.” The stage empties.
WITHOUT A PAUSE
ACT TWO BEGINS: NIGHT AT THE LAKE. ODDLY, IT FEELS AS IF WE HAVEN’T LEFT THE CASTLE, JUST GONE INTO ANOTHER ROOM…
We see that creepy bird of prey again, rushing across the stage. But is it the wicked magician von Rothbart or…the Evil Twin of the Tutor? Siegfried enters, and takes aim at something white and feathery rustling in the bushes. To his astonishment, out leaps the most beautiful creature he has even seen in his life: the princess he had already discovered in his dream. But she moves in a strange fashion, like a bird. Terrified, she begs him not to shoot. But Siegfried cannot resist the urge to grab her and to ask: “who are you? Um, what are you?”
“You see this lake? It is filled with my mother’s tears, for I,” she mimes, “am Odette, once a human princess, now queen of the swans. That evil sorcerer cast a spell on us, condemning us to be swans by day but we return to almost-human form at night. The spell will only be broken when a prince swears his undying love for me and never breaks that vow.” They are interrupted, first by von Rothbart, then by the arrival of the swan maidens (a corps de ballet of thirty-two).
Surrounded by the swan maidens, Siegfried and Odette express their growing understanding of each other in a tender pas de deux, which is followed by a series of dances by the other swans. Siegfried swears he will never look at another woman. But as dawn approaches he watches helplessly as von Rothbart turns Odette back into a bird. Siegfried doesn’t know it, but the strength of his vow is about to be put to the test.
ACT THREE: THE NEXT EVENING, IN THE CASTLE’S GRAND BALLROOM
It’s time for the Prince’s birthday party. Guests who seem to have been called forth from the Habsburg empire – Hungary, Spain, Naples, Poland — perform provincial dances in his and our honor.
Six eligible princesses waltz about, and the Queen Mother forces Siegfried to dance with all of them. Siegfried is polite but cold: the princesses all look alike to him, and not one is his Odette. Tension increases when the prince tells his mother he doesn’t even like, let alone want, any of these dumb girls. Suddenly two uninvited guests burst into the ballroom. It’s the Tutor (or is it von Rothbart?) and a beautiful young woman, It’s Odette!
But something is odd: she’s dressed in black and much coyer and sexier than the demure and frightened creature he’d embraced last night. As they dance the famous Black Swan Pas de Deux, the fascinated prince finds himself increasingly blinded by lust. Convinced she is his Odette, simply a lot more macha today, he asks for her hand in marriage and, at the Tutor/von Rothbart’s insistence, swears undying love. [A salute with fore and middle finger raised]. At that moment, all hell breaks loose: the Black Swan bursts out laughing and points to another bird who’d been desperately beating at the window panes. “There’s your Odette, doofus!” The Black Swan is actually Odile, her evil twin! The foolish prince falls in a faint, realizing he has completely screwed things up.
PAUSE (DON’T LEAVE YOUR SEATS!)
ACT FOUR: BACK AT THE LAKE. OR STILL INSIDE THE PRINCE’S MIND?
Siegfried finds himself back at the lake, surrounded by the melancholy swan maidens. He rushes off to find Odette. She rushes in. Frantic and distraught, Odette believes that, if she wants to liberate her fellow swans, she now has no other option but to kill herself.
The swans try to comfort their queen, while the triumphant von Rothbart unleashes a storm. Odette tries to fly from him to die but our gloating villain grabs at her with his claws.
The prince finally finds Odette, barely alive. Her wings – like her heart – are broken. Nevertheless, she forgives him and they dance together one last time, their movements illustrating how lovers cling to each other even as fate and magic try to pull them apart.
In 1877, the pair just ended up drowned. What a bummer.
In 1895, choosing to jump into the lake and drown together as martyrs meant the two would be carried up to the heavens as befits a final orchestral apotheosis.
In 1933, the evil magician killed Odette. Poor prince got left with little to do. Another bummer.
In the USSR, 1945, the hero ripped off von Rothbart’s wig and the gals all dropped their feathers. Liberation narratives befitted those times, we must assume.
Odette looks on helplessly as Siegfried tries to do battle with the sadist that is von Rothbart. As in the “lessons” with the Tutor in the first act, the prince is brought to his knees. Is this for real? Has all of this been a dream? Do nightmares return? Bummer.