Monday, August 23, 2010


Our 2010/2011 season began a couple of weeks ago, and we are kicking things off with Peter Martins' Svanesøen (for English speakers, that's Swan Lake). It's a tough first program, akin to being shot out of a cannon (into a lake, natch), but I love it. Correction: I love love looove Swan Lake.

The story is your classic, improbable-but-dramatic-and-stunning, ballerina fairy tale. It begins--as any good story does!--with a party: in the palace garden, people are celebrating Prince Siegfried's 21st birthday. Young people, old people, Siegfried's partner-in-bromance Benno, and a mischievous court jester are all having a fabulous time. (I mean, goblets are involved. It's a legitimate party.) Then Mama Queen herself arrives and she gives Siegfried a crossbow (probably the best gift he's received since being given the name "Siegfried"). Being a responsible mother, the Queen reminds Siegfried that he is now an adult and will soon be married. Siegfried gets the hint--thanks a heap, Mom!--and is understandably upset. I mean, what 21-year-old wants to be told, "Here's some arrows and a crossbow. Go get hitched. Oh, and happy birthday"?! Anyway, that night, Siegfried invites Benno out for some moonlit hunting to get his mind off of things. (Personally, I think if Benno was a real best friend, he would have maybe said, "Siggy, let's just get a pint. Lot easier than hunting in the dark." But then of course we wouldn't have this great love story.)

So the boys go out to kill things. They end up by a lake(!) and it is here that the birthday boy meets the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Quickly forgetting that mere moments before this, he was all about mourning the death of his bachelorhood, Siegfried is immediately totally in love with this nocturnal lake-babe. Siegfried has strange taste in women: turns out this wondergirl is the swan princess Odette. She's got a whole lotta baggage, too. A sorcerer, Von Rothbart (think the Voldemort of ballet), has turned Odette into a swan, but for a few hours each evening she gets back her human form. Because Rothbart is a nice guy like that. But at sunrise each morning, Odette swaps legs for wings again. Here's the catch: the spell can only be broken by a man who will love her forever, and not be a total jerk and cheat on her, ever. This curse-breaking stuff will not permit any wild nights in Vegas or slip-ups. Siegfried promises to marry her (a little fast for my taste, but to each his own) and he swears to Odette eternal fidelity. ETERNAL FIDELITY! This isn't just a pinky promise. Then Rothbart comes and sees his prized victim flirting with the prince, and they're all ready to have a manly showdown, but Odette is a lady (when she's not a swan, of course) and stops the testosterone explosion. This whole time, Odette's also-cursed, swan-lady girlfriends, have been watching their friend, and ballerina dancing. Then sunrise comes, and Rothbart leads his ladies up, up, and away, with Odette waving to her new squeeze.

After intermission, we go back to the ballroom at the palace to keep celebrating Siegfried's birthday. The Queen, looking out for her son/her own legacy, has taken the liberty of inviting six pretty young things as potential brides for Siegfried. He's a little bit, "Thanks, Mom, but I met a total babe at the lake." Then, a mysterious knight arrives at the party (sort of like the Dread Pirate Roberts in The Princess Bride) with his daughter Odile, who is seriously working a little black number. Siegfried thinks it's Odette, rocking a smoky eye and a hot evening ensemble. I can cut Siegfried some slack for the confusion: he just swore eternal fidelity like 12 hours ago; he met his true love in darkness, so it's not like he's going to know every freckle on her skin; and he's probably a little buzzed from "birthday spirits," if you know what I'm saying. Of course, the Dread Pirate Roberts guy is actually Rothbart, who has lovingly transformed his daughter Odile to sort of resemble Odette. Who, this whole time, is running around like a crazy person outside, trying to catch Siegfried's attention to warn him that he is about to totally screw her over by falling for Rothbart's trick and pledging his love to a big sack of crazy. The guests, meanwhile, are entertained with a series of national dances. Odile dances with Siegfried, and he digs her hot moves (and thinks she is Odette) and then swears her eternal fidelity. Rothbart and Odile are classically maniacal in their evil victory--I'm pretty sure they would cackle if ballet had sound--and the prince discovers that he has been deceived.

Back at the lake, Odette's girlfriends comfort her, albeit sans Ben & Jerry. And of course Siegfried is a mess. He goes to find Odette to ask for forgiveness. He is again ready to battle Rothbart, but again Odette is not having it. She forgives Siegfried for the big mix-up, and Rothbart preys on her emotional state to put her through some serious unpleasantness. But Siegfried has sworn eternal fidelity twice now, once to a different swan-babe, and so he has broken his promise to Odette. As a result, she must remain a swan forever, and the ballet ends with Odette and the girls going away into the forest. Siegfried stands alone, depressed and (I'm just guessing this one) feeling like a class-A fool.

So. Svanesøen isn't exactly a feel-good, laugh-out-loud evening at the theatre. But it doesn't matter: it has some of the most heart-wrenchingly beautiful music I have ever heard, by Tchaikovsky; the story is full of drama and love and passion; and it is stunning to watch onstage. If you're in Copenhagen from September 15-November 6, then, I highly suggest you come check us out at Operaen. You won't be disappointed. You might cry, but disappointment will not be the reason for your tears.

Amy Watson as Odette. Photo by David Amzallag.


Ballet News said...

Loved your knack for description!

Mette said...

Probably the best and most entertaining recount of Swan Lake's tragic events that I have ever read! Fabulous!

Anne said...

Highly enjoyable. One can see that all your hard work gives a bite to your irony. I love hearing about your work on the ballet on Twitter. This style of synopsis can surely bring ballet to a wider public.