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Pennsylvania Ballet - 'Swan Lake'

L’apres midi d'un Siegfried

by S. E. Arnold

June 4-5, 2004 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia

Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake" could be subtitled, "L'apres midi d'un Siegfried."

The idealism, meaning that the world is a creation of one's mind or spirit or self-absorbed fantasy, implied by the giant mirror that dominates the ballet studio setting of Wheeldon's "Swan Lake" resonates with the situation -- a male dancer working alone in a studio -- of "Afternoon of a Faun" by Robbins. A shift of emphasis, however, onto the role of Wheeldon's Von Rothbart, who like an artist/magician creates the Act III situation, and characters that mean to persuade Siegfried to see the world from a particular point of view, offers a second subtitle consideration – "Swan Lake or Rothbart: Bourne Again."

Although one's references to Robbins and Bourne mean to illustrate the dramatic impetus, setting, and characterization of Von Rothbart that Wheeldon's "Swan Lake" shares with them, the ballet’s declared family relationship, however, is to Petipa and Ivanov. Wheeldon meets the expectation prompted by that claim most noticeably in Act II.

A brief and compact instance occurs when Siegfried startles Odette. On the time suspending chord that punctuates the rising five-note figure that sounds her fright, joy, and torment, Odette snaps into her signature pose. On the down beat of this moment's coupled measures, and played at double forte, the brasses thicken the harmonically lean suspension heard in the strings into a half diminished seventh chord.

Whether by mind or sight or scholarship, viewers and listeners will recognize this sound (in spite of its structural rather then coloristic function) as Wagner’s "Tristan" chord. And given its context here, one can justifiably caption her pose with its "desire for love’s fulfillment" connotation. Moreover, this moment's particular fusion of sight and sound explains as least partly why this oft cited pose became "Swan Lake's" synoptic image.

Other instances include the serpentine entrance of the swans and their formation into a triangle, the dance of the petit swans, the temps leve in arabesque executed by the corps of swans in the midst of the pas de deux, and the spectacular coda, including the slowed statement of the coda's first section, which seemed to make Odette's entrechats in the return to tempo repeat all the more celebratory of her hope.

The costumes and the eight or so poses and tableau fashioned by the ladies of the corps as they enter the stage or studio reference the familiar ballet paintings of Degas. A piano playing music from "Swan Lake" accompanies this interlude between the Overture and Act I, scene i. When combined with the ballet studio set and its giant mirror, the music and Degas references thoroughly establish the cloistered, self-referential, and sensual world of Wheeldon's "Swan Lake."

In fact, a patron formally attired in black tails and top hat becomes the Von Rothbart in Siegfried's dream. And echoing the awkward and intimate moments captured by Degas, Act I exposes the customs, courtesies, and cruelties (one young lady, for instance, leaves the studio in tears following the rehearsal) of a ballet company in rehearsal for Act I of "Swan Lake."

In fact, Wheeldon explained to the Dance Critics Association conferees on the Saturday following Friday's premiere of "Swan Lake" (the opening performances of Pennsylvania Ballet's "Swan Lake" ran concurrently with the DCA conference in Philadelphia from June 4-6), that his self-conscious use of in-jokes and insider allusions to ballets and the ballet world lay behind his conception of "Swan Lake." The "L'apres midi d'un Siegfried" quality of his "Swan Lake," for example, follows from the intense personal investment, the enfolding a dancer experiences while learning a role such as Siegfried.

In his dream of "Swan Lake," however, the male dancer becomes possessed rather than invested in his role of Siegfried. And the demon of that possession is Von Rothbart. Von Rothbart, the creator and manipulator of images, begins his seductive plan in the midst of the action. Act III, for example, sheds the processional and the fanfare of trumpets that announce the folk dancers and the guests. The guests, which exclude the six possible brides and Siegfried's mother, enter the studio from behind the mirror on the bridge of music between the last fanfare sounded and the uninterrupted statement of the waltz in the "Scene -- Sortie des invites et valse" section.

The formal attire of the guests fit the age of Degas. Things get "scary," as one observer put it, however, when the pas de quatre variation for two female dancers includes a sudden shimmy -- and when the national dances include a five-girl Can-Can to the Neapolitan and an Art Deco "danse russe" strip tease. Cast on a female dancer costumed in a long coruscated pastel blue dress, the dress ultimately slips off, sometimes aided by the fawning, grunting male guests, in strips rather than layers to reveal the dancer's modish underwear.

Sex and the implications of its availability well season this Ball, and through a door in the giant looking glass steps Odile. The guests, banished to the space outside of the studio by Rothbart, leave the (it seems) ever shrinking studio to accommodate the familiar Black Swan pas and its fateful outcome.

The wave-scape backdrop, which until Act IV was only partly visible through the three large windows encased on the back wall of the studio, overwhelms the lone, crouching, and penitent figure of Siegfried. In fact, the power and ferocity of the waves could have sunk the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, and for this viewer, recalled the fall and swell of the main theme for "Victory at Sea" by Richard Rodgers.

And while the wildness of the waves offers a neat contrast to the refined architecture of the Swan corps' patterns, the fearful power of the natural force depicted -- whether experienced as a threshold to sublimity or taken as a visual metaphor for passion or fate or as a reference to those versions of "Swan Lake" where the lake's flood drowns Siegfried -- seems at odds with Wheeldon's conception of "Swan Lake."

The transcendence offered by an encounter with the sublime, for example, removes one from the need or want for forgiveness. Rather, the cloistered self- absorbed world of Siegrfried's reverie blocks his way to transcendence. In fact, he repeatedly seeks Odette's forgiveness, and she repeatedly grants it to him -- to no avail. For when Siegfried awakens, Odette -- by the necessity of the ballet's premise -- must vanish.

Wheeldon's ending tableau, however, offers other possibilities. The ballet ends with a return to the key of Degas. The back wall of the studio flies in, and a cluster of re-costumed dancers return to the work-a-day studio and pose. Among them is Odette. As the curtain falls, Odette and Siegfried look upon the other in wonder and recognition.

The contour of critical opinion, whether expressed privately by DCA conferees or publicly by audiences, about Wheeldon's "Swan Lake" mimicked the memorable wave-like theme composed by Rodgers for "Victory at Sea." Opening with an upward leap, "I have been watching 'Swan Lakes' since …., and this one is just fine," followed by a staff-consuming plunge, "I wondered when 'Swan Lake' was going to begin." And, "There was little difference between Odette and Odile!" And, "They (Siegfried and Odette) are supposed to meet in Heaven -- it’s in the music!" And, "The Odettes were too soft. At least the petit swans were crisp." Finishing with the rebound brought by standing ovations and an added performance.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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