I know what you’re all thinking, Swan Lake has got to be the most boring ballet on the planet. There are several full length Swan Lake ballets available on youtube including ABT and Kirov versions but I can’t get past the scene where the queen stupidly gives her son, Siegfried, a crossbow to play with. All the silly dancing around a maypole in the first act just puts me to sleep. Literally. I wake up somewhere around one of the many zillions of pas de deux he and the white swan have and wonder when it’s ever going to end. And what’s up with that weird little quartet of swans that has been the butt of ballet jokes for years?
As for the story, Romany Pajdak of the Royal Ballet lays it out for us, first in mime and then with a narrator interpreting:
But Sigfried blew it. The evil sorceror (there’s always one but I prefer Kashchei from Firebird) sends a black swan lookalike, Odile, to seduce Siegfried. He doesn’t realize he’s been tricked until it’s too late. Many more endless pas de deux follow before he and Odette crash and burn.
It’s a mystery why so many ballerinas say they want to play this part. If the black and white swan parts are danced by the same person, the whole thing must be just grueling. Is it like singing Wagner? Once you’ve done it for a season you’ve pretty much shot your vocal cords? Maybe it’s the last big role principal dancers get, if you know what I mean. Theoretically, it’s more fun to dance the bad swan but in so many interpretations, the ballerinas don’t differentiate the two parts very well. Except for the 32 fouettes in the black swan’s coda, the swans are pretty much indistinguishable but for the costume.
But here’s a version of the black swan pas that is a bit more edgy. This one is danced by Alys Shee at an International dance competition in Helsinki where she won gold. She’s something like 17 or 18 yrs old, a very young dancer and just after this performance joined the Birmingham Royal Ballet in the corps, so she won’t be dancing this part professionally for a looooong time. While Alys is still lacking the finish of a principal, she nails the black swan attitude. I love the “Hey, buddy, Pay attention!” tap on the shoulder she gives Siegfried when he starts daydreaming about Odette:
All well and good, you say, but meh, it’s just ballet. Ok, well, check this video. This is a snippet of a white swan pas by the acrobats of a Chinese circus. I have no idea how the dancer does what she does without wires. Seriously. Most professional dancers of even the highest caliber can’t stand on pointe like this for more than a few seconds. Maybe some of the world’s best ballet schools should make a trip to China to see how they do it. The rest of the Chinese choreography looks out of place in a ballet with Tchaikovsky’s music but at least they don’t make it boring.
I can’t remember the NYCB doing Swan Lake when I was a kid. From what I can recall, Balanchine only choreographed a part of it, probably because he found it stilted and melodramatic. He preferred to choreograph ballets without stories, which is how the Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux I posted before came to be. According to legend, the music for the Tchai PDD was requested for the original Swan Lake in Moscow so Tchaikovsky wrote up yet another pas de deux. In the end, some editor mercifully decided it was one pas over the line and took it out of the final ballet. Balanchine found the music in an old score for Swan Lake and choreographed a pas without all the frou-frou and feathers. Divine.