Swan Lake purports to be a love story, but I’ve never been able to think of it that way. Tchaikovsky’s grieving Act 2 pas de deux music (a slaying melody you’ll be humming for days after leaving the theatre) sounds less like romance than a long, mournful lament, and I think this tone points to the heart of the whole work. Swan Lake is really Odette’s (the white swan’s) story; it’s her sorrow at unattainable purity, her jeremiad against the injustice of her fate.
While there are sorcerers and curses at play in the plot, there’s something potentially very modern about Swan Lake, and James Kudelka’s 1999 adaptation, which the National Ballet is currently presenting, sets us up to ask the crucial questions: Is this a ballet about women or birds? Is it about creaturely beauty or the violence of idealized forms? Is it about a moronic guy who unwittingly betrays his lover because he mixes her up with another woman, or is it about the original woman’s repression of her darker, less “pure” self?
Swan Lake sits at the zenith of a century populated by winged, nymph-like heroines, and their unearthliness – the tension between the woman and the creature – was key to the evolution of classical technique. The swans feel like a kind of cumulative end point to the Romantic era’s sylphs and willis. Their white, feathery tutus have become an enduring emblem of classicism and, maybe because of that, ballet is associated with the preternatural. It doesn’t always seem comprised of human beings.
For a 21st-century audience, there’s something unavoidably meta in all this. Odette and her corps might be trapped as birds on one level; on another, they’re trapped along this trajectory of impossible, feminine ideals. Kudelka’s swans seem to know this and resist it; being the stuff of princely fantasy ruffles their feathers and gets under their skin.
One of Kudelka’s most notable revisions are his swans’ arms, which are significantly more sinewy and aggressive than the soft, fluttering norm you see in other productions. These aren’t birds you’d want to get close to and feed, and the sense of their anger – that they’ve been forced into roles against their will – is foreshadowed by another Kudelka addition: the rape of the Wench at the end of Act 1. I’ll get back to this depiction of rape, because it’s a problematic one that feels irresponsibly under-contextualized. But it introduces the theme of a violent coercion that’s reprised by the intractable swans.
There might not be a more coveted role in the classical canon than the alter ego of Odette/Odile and, when it’s danced well, the part is a sublime distillation of ballet’s terrific beauty. The National has given two second soloists, Emma Hawes and Hannah Fischer, both 23, a chance at the turbulent role. For a young dancer, the challenge is not just a matter of the part’s supreme technical difficulty – the black swan famously has 32 fouette turns in Act 3 – but of finding emotional depth in what might otherwise be a bit of a virgin/whore binary. Moreover, a truly great artist will make the choreography seem like an act of her own invention, rather than an interpretation of someone else’s steps.
I saw Hawes in her debut on Saturday afternoon and was blown away. I tend to be an incorrigible note maker, but I was so mesmerized by her performance that the pages of my book stayed blank. She’s a breathtakingly radiant performer and has the upper-torso suppleness, loose back, and classical intensity needed for the role. Hawes is so profoundly truthful and present in her dancing that she seems to surprise and delight herself as often as she does her audience. It’s as though she discovers both physical and emotional accents as she goes along. A never-ending arabesque will grow larger just when we think she’s hit maximum extension; an expressive port de bras will seem to carry all the sadness in the world.
Hawes has a youthful, vulnerable beauty that would make her seem more naturally disposed towards Odette, but what impressed me so much about her white swan was the gravitas of her suffering. Then the fire and sensuality of her black swan came from a real, inchoate place; Hawes’s Odile was full of laughing, girlish mischief. Looking out at the audience, I felt as though she was staring right into my eyes.
Corps de ballet member Chris Gerty had a slightly shaky start as Prince Siegfried, but he was ultimately impressive, finding a poetic expressivity that had scope and depth, and showcasing long lines and fine turns. As his friend Benno, second soloist Jack Bertinshaw was crisp and energetic, and corps dancer Calley Skalnik stood out for her soulful rendition of the Russian princess in Act 3. The male ensemble of virtuosic grand allegro at the beginning of Act 1 was a showcase of height and ballon, and the female corps was uniformly excellent, powerful, tragic and affecting with the swans’ notoriously demanding port de bras.
First soloist Jordana Daumec is always a generous performer, so naturally charismatic that even the small parts she plays come charged with exuberance. Her Wench was excellent, the complex, turned-in sequences buoyed by her playfulness and musicality. It all made the suddenness of the rape that much more unsettling. Essentially, a scene of innocuous merriment ends with Daumec disappearing amid a crowd of men upstage, who pump their fists in the air while she’s apparently victimized in the middle. Doubly unsettling is that this happens while the overture ends, so the audience is applauding simultaneously.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d be interested in how this assault might be intended to introduce a theme of violence and coercion that the production is actively condemning. But as it stands – with no resolution, no explanation, no embedded critique – the rape feels glib and extraneous.
Why are we watching this? That isn’t a rhetorical question. If the company can’t provide us with a serious answer, the section should be re-choreographed or taken out. It’s an egregious, ethical error in an otherwise strong production.
Swan Lake continues until June 25 (national.ballet.ca)Report Typo/Error
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