In March, I saw the National Ballet of Canada’s production of the ballet ‘Swan Lake.’ The production was sinister and had very dark elements: the distinctly black and gothic décor of the palace interior during Act III, and the blatant objectification of Odette by both Rothbart and Siegfried during Act IV. Tchaikovsky’s romantic score to the ballet, however, is exquisite, most notably for its use of specific instruments to create vivid imagery of royal scenes, the desolate lake, and the beautiful swan Odette.
The ballet is based on a German folk tale originally set in medieval times. Siegfried, a young prince, is anxious about his mother’s demand that he marry. While hunting in the woods, he becomes separated from his friend and discovers the evil Rothbart. Rothbart presents Siegfried with Odette, who is under Rothbart’s spell and in the form of a swan. Siegfried falls in love with her. Later, the queen has planned a ball to present her son with several foreign princesses, with the intent that he will choose one to marry. Rothbart arrives at the ball with his daughter Odile disguised as Odette. Siegfried dances with Odile and announces that he will marry her, unknowingly betraying Odette. Triumphant, Rothbart floods the palace and only Siegfried survives. He returns to Swan Lake to find Odette; though she forgives him, she will now remain in swan form forever. In this version, Rothbart kills Siegfried, and Odette is left to mourn the tragic loss of her lover.
The production was performed at the National Ballet’s home venue, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. This particular performance featured Xiao Nan Yu as Odette/Odile, Jiří Jelinek as Prince Siegfried, and Patrick Lavoie as Rothbart. Yu gave a formidably strong performance in her role as Odette. However, during Act III, as Odile, she fell short of expectation. She could not complete Odile’s famed 32 fouetté turns, falling off pointe after her 24th turn. Patrick Lavoie, by contrast, gave a hauntingly powerful performance; to be sure, this was a ballet of male oppressors.
‘Swan Lake’ has been a staple of the National Ballet’s repertoire since its founding. The first full-length production of the ballet was in 1955 at the Palace Theatre in Hamilton, after the choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. In 1967, the company presented the world premiere of Erik Bruhn’s version, which recasted Rothbart as a Black Queen, and highlighted Prince Siegfried’s complicated relationship with women. The most current version in the company’s repertoire was choreographed by James Kudelka. Kudelka’s ballet premiered in 1999. The choreography is controversial and highly misogynistic; the production is hated by purists, but continues today to draw in intrigued crowds.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was commissioned in 1875 to compose the score for ‘Swan Lake’ based on a libretto by Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the then Intendant of the Imperial Theatre in Moscow. The job was one particularly fitting for Tchaikovsky: while a young man, he was a well-educated lawyer working for the Russian Ministry of Justice, who maintained, in secret, a broody, fantastical dream of composing music. Prince Siegfried’s dangerous decision to follow his heart and leave behind the wealth and security of his royal court parallels Tchaikovsky’s nervous entry into the world of music, having left behind a respectable, well-paying job.
The romantic score, complete with soaring violins at the ballet’s most heart-wrenching moments, reflects Tchaikovsky’s fascination with “the works of such unorthodox masters of orchestral colour, as Glinka, Berlioz, and Wagner.” Tchaikovsky was inspired by Wagner’s Leitmotivs: “the association of a particular melodic theme or phrase with a certain character or incident.” Odette is associated with the famous oboe solo, which implies inevitable despair even during her happiest of moments.
This oboe theme is delicate and melodious, but the oboe’s bitter edge hints also at the hidden strength and aggression of a swan. The orchestra joins in with full force, however, playing a major variation on this theme, with gently escalating pitch, as Odette becomes more trusting of Siegfried. Piano and tremolo strings played whenever the corps de ballet, representing the flock of swans, slowly bourréed on stage, evoking a vivid image of gently rippling water. The dry ice accompanied with the dancers’ air-like entrance made the dancers look as though they were really floating on water.
Xiao Nan Yu’s interpretation of Odette was extremely impressive. In Act II, there was one drawn-out moment where she captured the swan’s trusting innocence perfectly; she penchéed gradually lower towards Siegfried, as if falling more and more in love with him, becoming vulnerable to anything he did in the rest of the ballet. She used rubato in her movements, floating gracefully across the stage while occasionally darting about with exquisite footwork, revealing the hidden violence and dexterity of the swan.
By Act III, however, Yu was extremely fatigued, and lacked the necessary sparkly eroticism that accompanies Odile’s character. That, together with her failure to complete the required 32 fouetté turns, made her performance disappointing. The audience came to Swan Lake expecting to be amazed by the incredible versatility needed to perform the dual roles of Odette and Odile, and Yu failed to meet that expectation.
The most striking aspect of this performance was undoubtedly the blatant objectification of women. There was only one woman in the first court scene — the program listed her as “A Wench”— who was ultimately gang-raped by Siegfried’s courtiers at the end of the scene. In the fourth Act, the audience didn’t see Odette fight for Siegfried as she does in other versions. Rather, Siegfried and Rothbart looked like angry children fighting over a toy; Siegfried even grabbed Odette at one point, and forced her beautiful arms down to her side while he held her in defiance. The dark choreography challenged the audience’s perspective of ‘Swan Lake,’ however, and proved that ballet can be poignant and progressive. I was overall extremely impressed with the National Ballet’s staging as well as the beautiful performance by the company orchestra.