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Von Krahl Theatre - 'The Swan Lake'

Deconstructing Petipa

by Holly Messitt

December 13, 2003 -- Dance Theater Workshop, New York

Deconstruction is an often misused term. For some time now, it has been far removed from its philosophical bearings. In fact, I read in the New York Times just recently of a “deconstructed” coat that David Bowie wore during a performance. So, when I say that The Von Krahl Theatre’s performance of The Swan Lake deconstructs the Petipa-Ivanov choreography and Tchaikovsky’s music, I mean that in its philosophical sense.

The creators of the work, Peeter Jalakas and Saha Pepelyaev, set out to question the ways traditional Russian ballet, and in particular the original Swan Lake , provided ideological messages about beauty and behavior in the former Soviet Union. This ballet serves the creators’ purpose well since, as the program notes tell us, the Soviet government broadcast the ballet non-stop during its 1991 putsch , the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.

As opposed to the traditional drama of the plot-driven narrative and the precise performance of the original, this Swan Lake moves in fits and spurts across the stage. With its absurdist theater antics, the piece feels mostly like controlled chaos. It is most definitely not a story of love, but rather an exploration of how dance was used by the Soviets as a means of control.

On stage are eleven people, five designated as actors and six designated as dancers. Of the five actors, two women, Liina Vahtrik and Tiina Tauraite, play the Odette/Odile pairing: here a child/servant dichotomy replaces the innocent swan princess/evil double. Metaphorically they work to suggest infantilizing on the one hand, and, as Odile often cries buckets of tears – suggested as she wails and squeezes a sponge into a bucket – a maturation into a life of labor and sorrow on the other hand.

The men’s roles, played by Juhan Ulfsak, Erki Laur, and Taavi Eelmaa, shift throughout the performance. Most often, however, they seem to represent the military officer, the politician, and the intellectual, and while they sometimes paired up against each other— at one point the politician makes a deal with the officer; the two shake on it while the intellectual’s head is in the bucket – most often they work together – demonstrated especially when Odette throws her blanket over the sleeping men, suggesting that they are “in bed” together.

The dancers dress in grey housecoats that they pair with socks and heavy boots, giving the impression of Soviet-era workers. Rather than the precise style of the Petipa-Ivanov corps, these dancers make their bodies stiff and hard to move, suggesting a mechanical nature that is much different from the machine-like precision of the Soviet corps dancers. These dancers begin the piece sitting in chairs suspended about fifteen feet off the ground, and they descend by swinging on a pole that the intellectual extends to them. Once on the ground, they look scared and confused, and the men move the women’s rigid bodies into position. As they do so, the men stare the women down, and the women randomly let out uncomfortable laughter.

The comparison between these dancers and the Soviet corps dancers is made literally also as video images of the Soviet dancers performing the corps roles are projected onto sheets that the Odile character has hung across the back of the stage – latter in the performance projected images of Soviet-style gymnastics are added to this comparison as well. The straight legs and precise movement contrasts greatly with the chaos on the stage and with the alternative mechanical nature of the bent-leg movement these dancers use.

Instead of drawing attention to themselves, these talented dancers spend much of their time on stage literally working for the male performers – for example holding out pillows on which the men perform somersaults. At one point the men mime feeding the dancers from their hands and then stroke their heads as one would a pet. At one point it appears that the dancers have joined forces to revolt against the men’s tyranny. After each performs her own solo, suggesting a growing individual self apart from the larger mass, the dancers work together to position one woman so that she is able to push the officer so that he rolls head-first across three barrels and dives into a fourth barrel (an extraordinary feat), but the men eventually take their power back and menace the women again.

Or do they? The dancers and Odette and Odile confront the men again, placing clothes pin on each of man’s face. After that, the men are forced to strip down naked, and I can say that the last image of men walking off-stage naked is disturbing.

We leave the theater with no clear answers and only the pieces of narrative to place together to make something for ourselves. It’s a thought-provoking performance that will raise more questions than it’s able to answer.

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