The swan is dying. I know she is, and so does everyone else! Carefully, daintily she skitters across the stage en pointe. I don’t know where the ballerina ends and the swan begins. Her arms rise and fall, and I almost see white wings fluttering, perhaps in a futile attempt to fly again. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s music, both tragic and releasing at the same time, glides around her movements, then folds, just as gently as she finally does on the ground.
This past holiday season has breathed new life in to a long-standing interest of mine: classical Russian ballet. Childhood memories have sustained me all these years, memories of fairytale images, breath-taking performances, bordering on the impossible in their light-limbed, dashing perfection. Memories of sweeping, encompassing tragedy, romance, joy, and oh so much drama. Sometimes over the years I saw parts of well-known classics integrated in to other modern ballets. Other times I would listen to that Tchaikovsky score from The Nutcracker on repeat. And then, by chance, I went to see a performance of Swan Lake by the St. Petersburg Festival Ballet, on tour in Hamburg.
There seems to be only one school of such almost mythical ballet excellence, and it was established in the 19th century with a Russian-French fusion that included the enduring choreography of Marius Petipa. His work extended to Swan Lake, among other ballets. It’s amazing to think how long this foundation has lasted, even if individual companies bring their own touch and spin on the story, performance length and costumes. Paired with Tchaikovsky’s soaring score, in each scene the music makes you think that this soundtrack could not have sounded differently, but only like the notes that are seeping in to your mind as you are drawn to the shore of the swan lake.
Some of the most magical parts of Swan Lake are when Odette makes a solo entrance. To me this character has always conveyed strength and a certain resolve within the confines of the swan curse. The expected physical endurance of the dancer for this role has to be carefully combined with so many other characteristics – poise, grace, fragility that doesn’t seem breakable. She has to be able to express fear, curiousity, hope, despair. As in the performances I remember from long ago, that night in Hamburg a true prima ballerina carried Odette along the water. An example of a dance (from a different version):
The music, of course, has accompanied my cultural experience in different ways, considering its enormous influence all over the world, from what I heard on the radio to an animated version based on the story, with a lot of quotable quotes. Anybody remember? (Don’t watch the sequel, it will tarnish the blissful experience if you enjoyed the first one as a kid.)
Back from the brief humorous reminiscence. It is nice to begin experiencing Russian ballet again as an adult. It’s also interesting – you notice things you may not have noticed before. For instance, I remember the story going along until it finished, even if the audience couldn’t keep from clapping explosively after practically every dance. The ensemble from St. Petersburg, on the other hand, paused after every famous scene and seemed to almost expect applause. Which they fully deserved, but it did break up the experience somewhat. The magical feeling I remember is still attached to the ensemble I have seen as a child. Maybe it’s because they had that one absolutely amazing dancer, and so far she has been the only one I’ve seen who got close to reenacting legendary Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova’s wavy, rippling arm movements as Odette dances her swan song before death claims her:
There is only one Ulanova, true, but there are also, luckily, others who take on the role of Odette and bring their own uniqueness to it, within the traditional dance framework that keeps attracting audiences decade after decade.
I hold my breath. Every eye is glued to the stage. The swan lies motionless. And then…well. Let’s leave it at that.
The curtain drops on the swan lake.
Until next time.