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Bourgeois Melodrama


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American Ballet Theatre

at the Auditorium Theatre, September 27-October 2

Ballet has always had its superstars--its Baryshnikovs and Pavlovas, its Petipas and Balanchines. Somewhere in the hype, the ballets themselves get lost. American Ballet Theatre's presentation of its stock version of Swan Lake is a good opportunity to look just at the dance itself and see if Swan Lake has any surprises left in it.

The first act carefully lays out all the elements of a Jungian coming-of-age story: the hero, Prince Siegfried, is about to celebrate his 21st birthday, attended by an ineffectual father figure, his former tutor Wolfgang, who is too old to dance. The men and women of the court also attend the prince, entertaining him with a rather stuffy Renaissance dance. The peasants who dance for him are much more entertaining, but even the best peasant dancer cannot be taught courtly manners. Here the borders of the prince's life are defined: the instinctual, earthy life of the peasants, and the pretty, gentle life of the aristocrats.

The prince's cold, distant mother sweeps in to tell him that at the ball the next night he must choose a wife, pushing him into the existential crisis that fairy tales delineate so quietly. Though the prince feels trapped by his mother's demands, he will not disobey her: forced to marry an aristocrat, the best he can hope for is a gentle wife who will be good to him and his children. But the prince yearns for the earthy life, for a sexy wife who will bring him pleasure. Trying to find a way out of this trap, he watches his best friend Benno dance and flirt with two women, seeming to choose one of them, then the other as she regains Benno's attentions. Their dance ends with both women onstage, the rejected one kneeling but still near Benno, the favored woman in his arms. But the prince cannot flirt so heartlessly and rejects Benno's solution: he cannot treat love as an art or a game. He then does what any boy in his shoes would do: he runs away. Seeing a flight of swans, he rouses his friends to go hunting.

In the second act, when the prince is alone in the wilderness intent on the hunt, his transfiguring moment occurs. He sees a swan, takes aim, then watches it turn into a woman. Stripped of the pretty symbolism of fairy tales, the situation is this: ready to fuck, the prince realizes that the object of his desires is not an object but a woman. He listens to her story, that she was trapped in the body of a swan by an evil sorcerer--an old story, almost as old as the story of Adam and Eve, but that doesn't make it untrue. Today, in made-for-TV movies, the evil sorcerer is an abusive father or a cold husband who's mysteriously stolen the heroine's love of life. The prince charges to her rescue, preventing his friends from shooting the other swans.

The first act has acres of regulation ballet movement, relieved only by the peasants' clowning. But when the swan queen Odette starts to dance, suddenly every gesture and angle in the dancers' bodies becomes meaningful, every carefully held arm denotes both the shape of a swan and the vulnerability of a woman. In one of the most famous images in ballet, the prince and the Swan dance in front of dozens of swans, the corps in a line at an oblique angle, their arms and legs all the same, in swanlike shapes. The multiplication of these shapes, as if to infinity, intensifies to almost a hallucinotory degree our sense of the swans' vulnerability. These moments are the climax of the ballet.

The rest focuses on the prince's problems rather than the swans' survival, and the story becomes flat and programmatic. The prince goes to his ball, where he sees the six gentlewomen his mother has selected. I'm not sure about him, but I was exquisitely bored. We both became interested only when Odile, the shadow form of the swan Odette, starts to dance. Odile is as earthy, sexy, and glamorous as Odette is fragile, gentle, and needy. I know that I'm supposed to root for Odette: Odile is only an impostor. And at moments Odile's glamour frightens me. But by the end of her dance, Odile seems a warm, spunky girl, a much better match for the prince than the neurasthenic Odette.

The machinery of Swan Lake's plot prevents any genuine consideration of the idea that earthy beauty might be equal to transcendent beauty. Odile is the evil sorcerer's trick--a tasty morsel intended to distract the prince. She runs away, and the prince runs after Odette to try to redeem himself. But it seems she can't forgive him, and she throws herself off a cliff. The prince follows her.

Though much of my sympathy is with the earthy elements, with Odile and the peasants, the ballet comes down squarely in favor of Odette and the aristocracy. And the dancing itself reinforces hierarchy in many ways. The swans form a hierarchy: the 18 women in the corps, the 4 women in one quartet, and the 4 "cygnets," who appear only in duets. This hierarchy is topped by Odette--and as danced by Susan Jaffe, she belongs on top. Her Odette has a daunting technique, expressive gestures, and a clear sense of character. These hard-won skills make her worthy of her place, and make the prince's sacrifice of his life also worthy. Swan Lake cherishes Odette as a figure of perfection, with a suggestion of moral perfection.

Yet Swan Lake also condemns Odette and the prince; a transcendent life is not possible for them. The only transcendence they're permitted is a sickly sweet apotheosis, reunited in death. This melodramatic climax completely satisfies bourgeois expectations about the impossibility of escaping one's position in life.

Ballet may have superstars because ballets demand superstars. Every detail in Swan Lake is intended to place Odette in the purest, best light. Even the prince is simply another setting for Odette's diamond. The dance has a cold heart and a fierce focus on perfection and failure, with little regard for human warmth or need. We give diamonds to seal a marriage, but we forget that diamonds simply reflect and focus light. After seeing Swan Lake, I felt a hunger for the delicate, unfocused light of a forest, filtered through layers of leaves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mira.

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