Some thoughts on Swan Lake:
San Francisco Performances
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA
October 23, 2002
By Mary Ellen Hunt
San Francisco Performances scored major coup last week in bringing one of Europe’s most acclaimed experimental companies, the Cullberg Ballet, to Yerba Buena’s Center for the Arts with Mats Ek’s post-modern “Swan Lake.”
The company has been performing this trademark ballet for almost fifteen years now, so it’s probably understandable that they’re ready to move on to new works, especially with new artistic director Johann Inger coming in next year. Nevertheless, while it may be old hat in Europe, and perhaps eclipsed by the slightly flashier version by Matthew Bourne, this “Swan Lake,” choreographed by Ek in 1987, has both a subtle moodiness and fanciful inventiveness.
Reams and reams have already been written about the bald-headed swans of indeterminate gender, about the Manichean undertones and Freudian leanings of the revamped story, but less has been made of Ek’s warm affection for the old classics of ballet. Far from savaging the story or being an anti-ballet, Ek’s “Swan Lake” references the work with more gentle pokes at ballet conventionality, rather than a denunciation of classicism. It is an examination of the ballet with modern eyes and a modern sense of humor, about as deconstructionist as Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut”, and rich with imagery and beautifully-realized passages.
Classicism is inherent in the backgrounds of the Cullberg dancers. After all, one can’t do a proper take-off of something unless you first understand it, and these dancers have clearly brought comprehensive ballet training to their roles as well as grounded modern technique. To all of this Ek adds in a darker dramatic element that is pared down, intense and faintly disturbing.
Many critiques this year and last year from London emphasized the dated-ness of certain elements of the production as if that were news, but anything can look dated to a certain degree. The fact is, now we may be used to seeing male swans or broad, Lichtenstein-esque backdrops for humorous parodies of old war-horse ballets, but that doesn’t detract from either the quality of his choreography or the fact that his “Swan Lake” came first, before Matthew Bourne, before Mark Morris.
It is no easy thing to re-engineer the arrangement of a ballet that has been so firmly entrenched in the minds of dance-goers, but setting aside any preconceptions, his choreography uses the music brilliantly. Even within his new paradigm though, there are small gestures that hark back to the more familiar versions of “Swan Lake.” The swans enter from under the backdrop in a lengthy split that recalls the famous split jeté entrance that the Swan Queen makes in the Ivanov choreography. The beautiful White Swan Adagio, which often begins with Odette fluttering to the floor in front of Siegfried and him gently lifting her up, instead starts with the Prince on the floor in front of the swan, and her dancing around him instead.
The Prince seems to be the missing link between the old and new, between classical ballet, as we’ve come to think of it, and theatrical modernism. Ek’s characters often evince a loneliness and he has the knack of showing alienation and dejection well, as in the slumped shoulders and heavy walks seen throughout his “Giselle”. As played by Carl Inger, in his “Hamlet”-inspired doublet and tights, Siegfried is a Romantic, albeit feckless, hero, in the cast of Goethe’s Werther, sorrowing over…, well, probably even he isn’t sure what he’s sorrowing over. The only character sporting his own head of hair, the prince is also the only real sexual naïf on the stage. He’s like a leftover from the nineteenth century who has stumbled into the modern world and is now stuck with contemplating a large dollop of Cool Whip instead of a skull. In the midst of angular jarring and melting modern steps and fluidly musical small gestures, Inger pulls out a perfect double attitude pirouette as if he can’t help himself.
The preening swans, in a more modern realistic pragmatic depiction moved not like swans on water, but like swans on land, waddling and ungainly. Even so, Julie Guibert, as Odette, the Swan Queen, displayed a grace and mobility that set her a cut above the rest of the swans. When she nestles against the Prince’s back, the sensuality was both touching and lovely.
The skullcaps manage to make most of the characters androgynous, even mannish, adding perhaps, to the Prince’s confusion over gender identities and sexual roles. In her red dress, however, Lisa Drake, as the Queen, could hardly be mistaken for a guy. Looking a little like Lady Jessica of the Bene Gesserit in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, the prince’s apparently single mom tore through her scenes, and her son’s life, with a savage gusto. Her spicy pas de deux with a lover, danced with a sinister restraint by Eytan Sivak and set to the Black Swan coda music, was one of the most delicious episodes of the ballet. Was she just having fun, or was it a perverse sexual lesson for the Prince?
A knowing sort of comic relief was supplied by the three jesters, danced by Johanna Lindh, Sawako Iseki and Alexandra Campbell. It is this trio that dances the satisfying reinterpretation of the show-stopping second act pas de quatre for the four little swans. Sometimes servants, but sometimes Chorus, or even Three Fates, the jesters served both to comment on and also to drive the dreams of the prince as they swung around hoses spewing out dream-mist and engulfed him in the bizarre and often mocking swan-world.
The prince’s Hero-Journey in the third act was about as contrived as the usual third act divertissements are, with a peculiar assortment of locales: Russia, Israel and Spain. What we are to make of those choices, I do not know. The most striking imagery built into the Black Swan scenes however, was the mysterious black figures gliding (dare I say “swan-like”?) across the stage. These silent observers add an element that recalls the theatricality that Ek’s countryman, Ingmar Bergman, has brought to productions of plays like “Maria Stuart” and “Hamlet” for the Royal Dramatic Theater of Sweden, in which characters wander at the fringes of the main action, intently watching and, one thinks, forming opinions that will shape the final outcome of the work.
The opening night performance was also marked by a gala for San Francisco Performances, adding an extra element of pomp to the evening. Processions, games, galas, dressing up, which was the more surreal? The entrance of the courtiers onstage or the entrance of the partygoers in formalwear who came from the gala dinner at the Forum prompting the curtain to go up almost a half an hour late? The eighteen dancers, who performed the work with unflagging enthusiasm (particularly Inger, who is onstage almost the entire time) seemed to take it all in stride and gave a rousing performance and the audience loved it. Perhaps they were put instantly in the proper festive mood by the pre-curtain announcement that the San Francisco Giants had won 4-3 that evening. If only the Giants had as much stamina and finesse as the Cullberg Ballet.