Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Swan Lake Project: Part 3

Okay . . . so . . . I’m posting a review of a ballet.  This may seem a bit strange considering this blog’s supposed “mission statement”.  When someone says they’re doing a “geeky” take on fairy tales, most people don’t expect things to take such a “high culture” turn.  After all, “geek culture” is usually considered to have more of a connection to “low culture” or even “junk culture”.  You may say I’ve sold out and drifted off-mission.  Well, first of all, I’d say you’re wrong.  For one thing, the modern, evolved definition of “geekiness” has less to do with specific arts and more to do with the unrestrained enthusiasm with which people enjoy things.  Actor and comedian Simon Pegg once said (and I may be paraphrasing) “Being a geek means not having to play it cool about something you love”.  Also, as InkGypsy reminded me in the comments of the last part of this feature, the ballet reaches to a far greater spectrum of classes than many would think.  After all, we still live in a world where little girls are still often given ballet lessons at a young age, regardless of social stratum.  I figure that if we live in a world where nerdcore rapper Adam Warrock (who routinely raps about stuff like Marvel Comics and Joss Whedon’s show Firefly) can write rap songs about the opera La Boheme, it’s not too much of a stretch for Fairy Tale Fandom to cover ballet.  Also, whether you’re “high-falootin” or “low-falootin”, humanity just loves a story.  Ballet is essentially story conveyed through music, motion and dance.  I may not know much about dance, but I do know a thing or two about story.  So, I present my review of The Royal Ballet Covent Garden’s production of Swan Lake.

            Now, admittedly, this is kind of an old production.  It’s dated at 1982, which is as old as me.  However, it must be a classic because a quick search suggests that they still show a variation of this performance at the Royal Opera House.  I could have used the Matthew Bourne version, which features an all-male corps of swans.  However, as something of a ballet novice I thought it would be better to go with something more traditional.  Now, the primary players in this production include Anthony Dowell as Prince Siegfried, Derek Rencher as Baron Von Rothbart and Natalia Makarova as Odette and Odile.  I actually have a more modern photo of her right here:

Now, the way this DVD is set up is that each act starts with a synopsis presented by a narrator.  This is actually rather helpful if you don’t know the story particularly well.  Anyway, the first thing I notice when the curtain goes up is how familiar the music is.  This music has probably been playing in the background of things my whole life and I never knew what it was.  I recognize the main theme from the opening of Universal’s Dracula, of all places.  The first act starts with Prince Siegfried celebrating his 21st birthday.  There’s a party, some villagers are in attendance and his old Tutor (Gary Grant) is apparently playing the role of chaperone.  Things are going well, and then the queen arrives.  She tells Siegfried (through “ballet mime” in this case) that he’s played around enough and that she’s planned a ball where he’s meant to pick out a future wife.  Here would be a good point to point out one of the misconceptions about ballet: not everyone is dancing all the time.  When I was younger, I figured that all the characters in a ballet had to be dancing all the time.  The queen does not dance.  She shows up, talks in mime and that’s it.  Anyway, Siegfried is not happy with this idea.  However, his friends convince him to go hunting and try out his brand new crossbow.  Act two ends with the group of friends chasing after a flock of swans they see in the sky.

            Act two begins with Siegfried arriving at a lake all by his lonesome.  There, he meets Odette.  The two “talk” and we get the usual story.  She’s been enchanted by Von Rothbart and needs a declaration of love in order to fully regain her human form and all that (we’ve kind of covered this in my last two installments).  It’s here that we actually first see Baron Von Rothbart in, actually a kind of badass owl costume.  Seriously, he’s rather imposing compared to the goofy version from The Swan Princess.  I might even wear that costume for Halloween if I had the chance (I wish I had a picture to post).  Anyway, we get a few dance numbers.  There’s one between Siegfried and Odette as well as some that show off the talents of the swan maidens.  The whole act ends with Siegfried trying to shoot at Von Rothbart and Odette stopping him.  Then, Siegfried makes his promise to declare his love at the ball and then leaves.

            Act three is the big, opulent ball scene.  Lots of dancing!  This seems to be the big chance for the cast to show off their dancing skills.  There’s a waltz of prospective brides as well as a Spanish dance, Hungarian dance, Neapolitan dance and Polish dance.  Now, when all this is done, Odile enters the picture led in by Von Rothbart in his human form (not as impressive as the owl form, but still not bad).   Naturally, Odile is the spitting image of Odette (they’re played by the same ballerina) but she’s dressed all in black.  Also, the music is different, indicating that there’s something not quite right.  Siegfried and Odile have a very long, intense dance number.  Odette sees all of it, though.  They do this by projecting a moving image of Odette on the windows of the ballroom set.  For 1982, it’s a pretty good way of having two of the same performer in the same place at the same time.  Anyway, it ends with Siegfried making his declaration of love (which Odette also sees from the window).  Here, Von Rothbart has his triumphant laugh and reveals his ruse.  Then, the whole party just falls apart.  Before moving on to act four, I’d like to point out how helpful the pre-act synopsis was for this act.  It was only in this version and in the synopsis that they explained that Von Rothbart had replaced Odette with his own daughter.  That adds a whole other layer to the story.

            Now, act four with its grand finale is where I start to lose track of the story a little bit.  I know that Odette flies back to the lake to drown herself and her flock intervenes.  I know that Siegfried runs there to try and make amends.  I also know that they decide to drown themselves together (this is one of the sad endings).  However, I don’t remember them actually, y’know, offing themselves.  I do know that they left the stage at a certain point but I don’t remember them doing it with any feeling of finality.  I do remember Von Rothbart chewing the scenery quite a bit as their sacrifice affects him and he dies as well.  I’m kind of left wondering what ever happened to Odile, though.  Anyway, the whole thing ends with Prince Siegfried and Odette appearing on a big, heavenly swan boat indicating they’re together and happy in the next world.

            Well, this has been a first.  Not a first ballet (I’ve watched two previously on PBS) but the first time I’ve actually had to think about one enough to actually write about it.  I do like the story and Tchaikovsky’s music is excellent.  I’ve even been thinking about adapting the story into a storytelling performance.  If there were anything that turned me off in all this it’s that I kind of wish there were less dance numbers that didn’t seem to contribute to the story.  Some of the swan dances that did not include Odette, for example.  However, I feel that that’s probably just in the nature of the art form.  Sometimes in ballet, you just need to have dance for the sake of dance.  I wish I knew more about dance so I could understand the significance.  One nice thing about doing this project is that along the way I discovered some of the most interesting takes on Swan Lake, including a WiiMusic version and a dubstep version.  I also found the Royal Opera House’sSwan Lake: a Beginner’s Guide” videos which were rather helpful in interpreting what I saw.

Anyway, it’s been quite a week and I thank you for joining me for The Swan Lake Project.

1 comment:

  1. Possibly the most excellent review of a ballet I've read from someone who isn't a balletomane. I have no doubt your post will be referenced a lot in future. Kudos!