It is now 14 years since James Kudelka unveiled his controversial Swan Lake created for the National Ballet of Canada. Purists, of course, continue to be outraged at Kudelka’s radical treatment of a beloved classic, but, for those who are more freethinking, his version remains an exhilarating experience.
Basically, in the so-called white acts (2 and 4), which take place at Swan Lake, Kudelka has remained close to the original Russian classic. Prince Siegfried (McGee Maddox) falls in love with the Swan Queen Odette (Xiao Nan Yu) but their love is thwarted by the evil Rothbart (Etienne Lavigne).
Kudelka’s brilliance is including all the original elements of the ballet in his choreography, only to turn them on their ear.
In the original version, the Prince’s birthday is celebrated by friends and peasants. Kudelka has set his Act 1 in a hunting camp. The only woman present is a servant girl called the Wench (Tanya Howard). Thus Kudelka has set the scene for a world dominated by men.
The famous first act waltz is performed by Siegfried’s knights.
Kudelka has incorporated court posture into the choreography, so these young aristocrats appear very graceful – one hand on the hip, the other arm curved prettily in the air. He has also added lots of showy ballet tricks to capture the energy of youth.
This initial lyricism is important as a contrast to what happens later in the act, because once the knights have had a few drinks, they move from rambunctious to violent. The Wench is gang-raped, egged on by the Fool (Keiichi Hirano).
In the original, the court ladies blindfold Siegfried’s tutor (Hazaros Surmeyan) in a charming game of Blind Man’s Bluff. Kudelka’s game with the blindfolded tutor amounts to torture.
Act 3 is set in a glittering ballroom. The Queen (Alejandra Perez-Gomez) has invited princesses to the court so her son can choose a wife.
The original act also contains a series of character dances, performed by soloists and the corps de ballet. Kudelka has brilliantly transformed each character dance into a demanding solo for a single princess.
The court women have been dismissed, leaving the knights, in this man’s world, to ogle the princesses. Clearly, the queen herself had once been a princess on this humiliating auction block. As extra spice, Kudelka has layered in relationships between the princesses and their ambassadors, each of whom has his own persona.
This was a big night for Maddox, debuting as Siegfried. Although his performance was tentative, he can do the tricks, and he is a very good partner. His Siegfried was one of callow youth which made it all the more believable that he could be so cruelly manipulated.
In truth, the more traditional versions of Swan Lake, no matter how beautifully they are danced (think Bolshoi and Kirov), seem bland in comparison to Kudelka’s high drama.