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Boston Ballet

'Swan Lake'

Humanity and the fall

by S.E. Arnold

May 15-16, 2004 -- Wang Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts

“Does it matter,” questions poet Robinson Jeffers, “whether you hate your…self? At least/ Love your eyes that can see, your mind that can/ Hear the music, the thunder of the wings. Love the wild swan.”

… or love Sarah Lamb or Larisa Ponomarenko or Lorna Feijoo or Romi Beppu as Odette/Odile and the thunder of the great swan corps in Mikko Nissinen’s meditation on Swan Lake.

Compelled by necessity to invest his vision of “Swan Lake” within the sets and costumes of an inherited production, the relationship between and characterizations of Siegfried and Rothbart, however, revealed Nissinen’s point of view. Although the melancholy suffered by his essentially merry Siegfried echoes the melancholy, character, and fate- to break a curse- of Wagner’s Senta, it is the numinous Rothbart that shapes Nissinen’s vision of “Swan Lake” into a retelling of Eden’s loss.

“I am suggesting,” said Nissenin about Siegfried’s confrontation with Rothbart in Act IV, “but I am not putting it in writing anywhere, that part of what takes place is the Prince’s own dark side. Yes, we have a fairytale with Rothbart and all of this, but there are two sides of an individual at the same time. There is a little bit of Rothbart in Siegfried and a little bit of Siegfried in Rothbart.”

Rothbart opens Act II, which followed Act I without pause, with a space consuming solo filled with bravado turning jumps. Costumed in doublet and black trousers with gold weave, Rothbart might have move amongst the 16th century population of the ballet barely noticed. Rothbart in spite of his supernatural powers appears quite human suggesting that the curse he enforces is the anxiety and guilt – the self-hatred Jeffers refers to - that signifies humanity. In the case of the swans in “Swan Lake,” however, humans are cygne-fied, which means that the curse of anxiety and guilt is undone- at least temporarily. In the clouded history of “Swan Lake’s” literary source, it could be that the curse that changes a maiden to swan might have been reversed.

What’s it like to be a swan? Only Odette and her fellow community of 24 swan maidens can tell us. And although it is disappointing that Siegfried fails to ask her, it is nevertheless the uniqueness of Odette’s subjectivities, her differing self-hoods that make for this viewer the risk of her commitment to Siegfried’s pledge keen and more bitter than sweet. Unlike Wagner’s Dutch sea captain, for example, who aggressively seeks the curse breaking liberation of a lover’s commitment, Odette hesitates. Given the evidence of her costume, her steady wing-like port de bras, and the wild petite allegro flourish in the coda that ends the Act II pas de deux, her metamorphosis from swan to human seems incomplete. That Odette’s want to fly from Siegfried hints that her swan sensibility shuns the compromise to the “bright power” of its “fierce consciousness.” Moreover, her dual subjectivities warn her that in the vacuum brought by the surrender of that power and consciousness to Siegfied’s claim of redeeming love oppressive human feelings and acts such as those that require redemption will rush to replace them. Nevertheless, Odette falls … in love with Siegfried and the Eden of her guiltless swan world vanishes.

On the other hand, “Swan Lake” celebrates what it is like to be human. Acts I and III cheer a young person’s coming of age and his nuptial activities, while Acts II and IV reveal the awkwardness and impetuosity of new love and the desire to render that love transcendent. At the same time, however, Act III exposes the dark side of human experience. Praying upon those that would be happy the self-hate inherent in humans referred to by Jeffers and manifest in the mockeries of Rothbart and Odile, for example, easily tempt the euphoric, love blinded Prince into betraying his love. The confrontation between Seigfried and Rothbart in Act IV, however, redeems that betrayal and shows that ideas of beauty as well as morality inform human action.

In the poetry of Jeffers, Beauty is a force rather than a property of the physical world. And like acceleration and/or the nuclear force rather than size, color, and shape, for example, Beauty seems to mark both movement and a compulsion for coherence. In “Swan Lake,” for example, the restlessness inherent in the inverted chords at the beginning of the Overture both drive the ballet and identify its tonal center. Moreover, in Act IV, which at eighteen minutes was shorter than the intermission that preceded it, Siegfried rejects Rothbart the bringer of guilt not with arms or sadistic frenzy, but with Odette held above him in the pose of a swan in flight. As a swan and manifestation of Beauty as a natural force, Odette is beyond the reach of human guilt and so Rothbart’s power vanishes. In the human world of Swan Lake, the force of Beauty manifest in that lifted pose and the source of the ardor and commitment of Odette for Siegfried and visa versa spoiled Rothbart’s guilty power. Moreover, the force of Beauty delivered for the lovers the peace of transcendent love.

One was at least grateful if not quite in love with one’s eyes that could see and one’s mind that could hear the Boston Ballet production of Nissinen’s “Swan Lake.”

Edited by Jeff.

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