On Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky's dramatic brilliance, and how the ballet's portrayal of love is still relevant
Swan Lake was recently performed by the Royal Russian Ballet in Mumbai. It continues to remain relevant because it explores themes related to love, and the conflict between good and evil | #FirstCulture
There is something ethereal about watching a ballerina walk on her toes, carefully balancing her body while stretching the limits of her muscular flexibility through pirouettes, gravity-defying leaps, splits and graceful movements. If this isn’t enough to make one’s jaws drop, set this against the evocative, sensuous music of Russian composer Tchaikovsky, and one is set for an evening of pure abandon.
It is this, coupled with spectacular dancing and the sheer joy of watching 45 artists portray a tale of love, despair, evil and hope in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, one of the world’s most well-known ballets, that makes one unwilling to leave the theatre after the show is over. Swan Lake is also one of the most recognised music scores, 150 years after it first premiered in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1877.
Even if you don’t know much about ballet or who Tchaikovsky is, you are still very likely to have encountered his music in pop culture, whether it is in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan, or in other iconic movies, such as Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932) and also spoofs, in Funny Girl and Dexter’s Laboratory.
After having a successful run in New Delhi last year, Ukraine’s Royal Russian Ballet has returned to India on a multi-city tour to perform Swan Lake, co-produced by Navrasa Duende, this spring. The troupe performed a record 25 shows in Mumbai alone, over 13 days between 13-25 March.
Swan Lake is the quintessential classical ballet complete with a bewitched swan queen, doomed prince, evil sorcerer, glittering villainy and soulful movements.
The story follows Prince Seigfried who encounters a flock of swans at a lake in the forest. He is about to shoot one of the swans with his crossbow, when one of them turns into a beautiful woman, Odette. The swans are under a spell cast by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart, and she can be freed only if one who has never loved before takes a vow of true eternal love for her. The prince pledges his love for Odette and asks her to come to the palace to marry him and break the spell.
Rothbart overhears this conversation and instead brings his daughter Odile (dressed as the black swan), disguised as Odette, to the palace. The prince is deceived and believes her to be Odette, mistakenly announcing his marriage to Odile. Odette witnesses this from the castle window. The prince sees her for a fleeting moment, before realising the deception. He rushes after Odette to the Swan Lake and begs for her forgiveness. Rothbart reaches the lake and a battle ensues between the two. The ballet ends with Rothbart’s death and Odette finally freed to become a woman and reunite with Prince Seigfried.
“The ballet’s story and music were a little ahead of its time when it was first performed in 1877. The original production’s story had a rather grim ending featuring both the Prince and Swan Princess jumping into the lake and dying. The audiences in 1877 simply did not seem to like such a dark story,” said the show’s director and producer Anatoliy Kazatskiy, who is also a renowned ballerino. The 1895 revival changed this ending, making it happier and hopeful, he explains.
It was not just the story that irked critics in 1877 but also Tchaikovsky’s music which they deemed to be “too noisy, too Wagnerian and too symphonic”. It was also considered difficult to dance to. But over time, critics agreed upon the virtuosity and grandeur of the Russian composer’s music, which then catapulted it to a cult classic status in the ballet world. “The ballet score by Tchaikovsky is a work of pure musical genius and has remained the only constant in the ballet, except for some minor revisions,” said Kazatskiy.
Tchaikovsky is also famous for his other works such as The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty. So, why choose Swan Lake specifically to perform a ballet in India? Kazatskiy said he believes this ballet is more accessible to the masses. “If you want to introduce audiences to ballet for the first time and help them understand what this dance form is all about, when touring a new country, Swan Lake is the ballet that most companies choose. Its powerful narrative, pathos, and tragedy resonates with a majority of audiences across the world. The dances, music, motifs, and plot of Swan Lake are also familiar to even those people who have not seen the ballet. It impeccably brings together classical music and art, making for a wholesome theatrical experience for the audience, and that is why we chose to perform it,” he said.
Tchaikovsky’s music captures a range of emotions: There is a sense of celebration one moment with music played in major scales, before it quickly and seamlessly shifts into a minor scale to convey a sense of melancholy and foreboding. His use of different instruments, from an oboe to violin, to convey different emotions brings the audience closer to the characters.
As an auditory experience, the ballet stands on its own, but it is the dancing that helps elevate it.
To this end, dancers from the Royal Russian Ballet make it look effortless, displaying years of training and finesse. Be it rapid pirouettes, splits in the air, synchronised movements, or convoluted lifts, the ballet showcases all sorts of techniques. This was achieved with several hours of practice daily, Kazatskiy explains.
In this production, Odette’s transformation from an elegant, graceful swan into the evil, seductive and dreadnought Odile is a treat for the eyes (the same ballerina plays the two roles). As Odile, the ballerina’s movement is sharp and cuts through the air, reflective of her persona.
Swan Lake contains one of the most notorious moves in the ballet repertoire: the 32 fouetté turns which Odile performs during a duet with Seigfried.
‘Fouetté’, which means “whipped” in French, involves the ballerina moving her leg around in a whiplash movement, without touching the ground, while standing on her toes on the other leg for 32 turns.
One could count about 29-30 turns in this show, an incredible feat in itself.
While Odette/Odile have a larger role to play in the ballet (story-wise), over time, Prince Seigfried’s role has become more striking, said Kazatskiy. “Nearly every ballet master or choreographer who has recreated Swan Lake has sought to make changes to the ballet's plot points, while still maintaining, to a considerable extent, the traditional choreography for the dances, which is regarded as virtually sacrosanct,” he said, “Likewise, over time, the role of Siegfried has become far more prominent, largely due to the evolution of the ballet technique and the increasing significance of male characters and dancers in the modern ballet styles.”
The ballet is a dramatic story with several layers, feels Kazatskiy. “The many different states of mind of the characters, as well as the powerful, emotional moments they go through during the play make it an almost cinematic experience,” he says, “Swan Lake, at its very core, explores themes related to love, the conflict between good and evil, and the freedom to choose who you love – all of which are immensely relevant even today.”
Even if one isn’t able to comprehend the story, one certainly leaves with a new-found respect for ballet as a dance form, one that is physically and emotionally demanding. "It is also one of the most beautiful and graceful forms,” believes Kazatskiy.
Swan Lake will next be performed in New Delhi (30 March – 1 April), Ahmedabad (6-8 April) and Kolkata (12-14 April)
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