October 18, 2002
In film and television, there is a convention known as “breaking the fourth wall.” Essentially, this means that a character crosses the imaginary boundary between viewer and actor and addresses the viewer directly or looks directly at them. It’s a way of communicating a message that is otherwise unable to be communicated, or of setting a stylistic approach to the production. In terms of writing, it’s generally considered somewhat of the easy way out of a problem or situation. Its effect usually tires quickly and becomes passé. There was much breaking of that wall between audience and performer in this version of “Swan Lake” tonight. It was alternately surprising and tiring.
This performance crossed the imaginary line between viewer and performer in only a few ways, by using loud cries, laughter and outright acknowledging the existence of an audience at times. While this may have seemed a novel approach to resolving the problems of fully communicating the emotional subtext of the characters, audiences are far more sophisticated now than even the scant 15 years since this piece was originally staged. We grasp the ideas and concepts communicated within the piece without the reinforcement of the audible cries and barks.
Then there is the sexual undertone in the performance and the decision to use shock value to fully explore this issue. “Swan Lake” has always been open to various interpretations of sexual deviancy with men falling in love with swans and over-bearing mothers. The fact Mats Ek was able to contrive a full-length comment on the Oedipus complex using “Swan Lake” as its basis is not surprising. But there were moments where it seems the use of sex was extreme, designed to elicit a strong response where one was not necessary. As with the audible outbursts, we understood what was happening between the characters. There was no need to go to the point of simulated sex acts and nudity to hammer it home.
Is this a Puritan response (very American), or is it just, as my friend said, “The Swedes being Swedish.” The only way to know is to experience this revealing version of “Swan Lake” for yourself; And experience it I do recommend.
This boldly re-envisioned piece asserts itself immediately, making very clear its agenda and message. The treatment of women in society is no new issue but this impetuous young Prince is out for a lesson I cannot say he wholly learns by the evenings end. Yet while the comment is about women, the lines of distinction between women and men are constantly blurred. So, in fact, are we being asked not about how we treat women, but how we treat each other as objects?
Men and women alike are devoid of hair. The strongly sexual nature of hair and its instant ability to distinguish man from woman is removed, pulling both sexes to a remarkably equal, base level of existence. The lines are further blurred with men playing Swans and women playing men’s roles. The loss of this delineating feature leads inevitably to some moments of gender confusion for the Prince, the only cast member with hair (a shocking blonde mess, short and cropped). It also allows for the sheer rawness of sexuality to ooze through its characters.
The choice of color in some of the costumes was curious. Particularly of interest to me was the fabric for the two Orthodox Jewish men in the second act. Black is the traditional color of Orthodox men, but this production opted for shiny purple with bright purple and green locks of hair. An interesting choice as purple has dual connotations of royalty and the seedier reference associated with hustlers and pimps. I’d be very interested to know what the thought process was behind this choice. When the issue of color and costuming was addressed in the post show discussion, the answer made it clear the co-artistic directors either did not understand the question, or they simply did not know.
Technically, this is a very enjoyable company to watch with fine lines, strong, certain jumps and boundless energy. Their classical training gives them a firm foundation for modern choreography, though perhaps too strict a foundation in that the dancers appear a bit rigid at times.
The scenery is minimal: a backdrop, a whipped up looking prop like something from Dr. Seuss whose symbolism is left nebulous, and a few moveable pieces in the second act. The first act backdrop appears to be a line drawing of a curtain pulled back, but it evokes thoughts of the womb looming over the Prince’s sheltered life.
I do not usually enjoy full-length modern works, and it wasn’t until late in the first act when I began to enjoy this piece. There was a moment toward the end of the act when the Swan corps was moving across the stage. The music swelled with the ominous Swan Lake theme (moved around as was much of Tchaikovsky’s score). I noticed something in the movement of the dancers. I cannot say quite what it was or how it happened, but it seemed as one the corps had done something that was counter to the music we were hearing. It was a fleeting moment that I cannot say others shared. But for me, something happened between dancer and viewer that was wholly unexpected. Be it a quirk of timing, lighting or just my imagination, it made me see something deeper, subtler than previous “Swan Lakes.” It was this moment that made me begin to take this version seriously.
Comparisons between this and the Matthew Bourne version cannot be avoided. Both take liberties with the original, and both also share a theme of personal discovery through sexual awakenings. Yet the Bourne version is a comment about one person and his struggle for identity while the Ek version seems more a statement on society at large. But I found the swan corps in this version more appealing in it’s diversity. Men and women playing the hairless swans added an unpredictable element that rounded out the productions themes.
<small>[ 10-20-2002, 20:37: Message edited by: 2 left feet ]</small>