On February 18, 2017 Oregon Ballet Theatre will premiere its version of Swan Lake. According to OBT’s headline, the ballet was adapted by Artistic Director Kevin Irving after Petipa/Ivanov. I will be discussing the Swan Lake history and story rather than elaborate on the company’s performance.
Since December 1984, when Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake premiered in Paris, there has been a gateway of new stories looking at Swan Lake as a daydream. Nureyev stated, “For me, Swan Lake is one long daydream seen through the eyes of Prince Siegfried…” This attitude was also copied by British choreographer, Mathew Bourne, with all-male dancers. These choreographers identified their ballet as Swan Lake, which points to Swan Maiden type stories. Very often these new variations lack the necessary structure to be correctly identified as Swan Maiden. For example, in the case of timing, Swan Maidens rarely if ever are identified at the beginning of the story, but appear much later as the story unfolds. This rule was correctly followed by the Reisinger 1877 version and the Ivanov/Petipa 1895 version. In the case of Nureyev and Bourne’s variations, both begin with the lead dancer dreaming of the swans. In Irving’s rendition, the father, who is the genie/Rothbart with good intentions, appears in Act I. The father figure character does not exist in Reisinger, Ivanov/Petipa, Nureyev, or Bourne’s version. However, Nureyev’s tutor/Rothbart, seen in Act I, could be considered a father figure or guide for Prince Siegfried.
In Irving’s Act I Scene II, it is Siegfried’s father who causes him to dream of the swan maiden, Odette, which in effect creates distance for the audience, as they are no longer connected to the story because it is Siegfried’s dream alone. This inability to connect audience to the storyline is also true for Nureyev’s and Bourne’s Swan Lake adaptations.
We have lost the reason why we are telling a story and how to be a storyteller. This is because we no longer have connection to the symbolism. The Ivanov/Petipa version of Swan Lake, simply put, is about the hero or the king within each of us. The Swan Maiden or Odette is life. Capturing her is a sign of arriving at manhood (in a male-dominated society). Threshold between light and darkness, water and land, which appear in all Swan Maiden stories to include the 1887 and 1895 Swan Lake, represents life and death or crossing over in many cultures. Rothbart represents chance encounter or destiny that leads to tragedy. When it is a daydream and the Rothbart character is introduced at the beginning, there is no chance encounter but a pre-existing condition.
The art of ballet and the stories it tells communicates with the subconscious mind, and early choreographers understood this concept. For example, appearance of Odette at the window in the party scene in the 1887, 1895, and later versions was the connection to Russian wedding culture. Moyle (1986) in New Studies in Russian Language and Literature wrote: “Russian women are considered to die at marriage…It was believed that the door, which was used for normal human passage, should not be used for brides and corpses” (p.229). Today’s audience when they see these early works, refer to them as daydreams, but they demonstrate the hero’s willingness to die and emerge as new. Seeing it as a daydream diminishes the quality of these early works. Instead of learning what the original works meant and using them to create new work that tells the story of our lives in present and communicates to our subconscious, we are regurgitating newer variations that are shallow and one-dimensional only to provide an opportunity to present a choreographer’s ability to make use of existing music. American mythologist Joseph Campbell stated that the artist’s responsibility in the absence of or weakened mythology is to provide new myths to satisfy this need.
For more in-depth analysis on Swan Lake ballet narrative and origins, and other articles, please read The Truth About Dance (2015) http://amzn.com/1458219291
Shahab is accepting new dance questions. Please consider completing his artist survey as well--just takes 5 minutes and you can remain anonymous. Thank you
Question 1—I want you to be very honest. Do you think that if I start ballet at the age of 15 that I can ever be good, really good? Would everyday practice help? I really would like to get into the ballet profession, but only just recently found out how much I enjoy it.
Answer—It does make a difference if you are a male or a female, flexible or not, training with the right people, and have the talent and luck to go with it. It also helps to have the right look. I have seen people that started later than that and succeed. The word succeed is also relevant to your desire. To some, it would mean that they have a job seven or eight months in a year, and the rest of the time they make do by performing in satellite companies (small companies). To join a major company, which has a budget of anywhere from $2 million a year to $40 million a year (e.g., New York City Ballet), it requires more than everything I had mentioned above. It also requires tenacity.
It is a way of life so different that if you choose to engage in it, everything else becomes secondary for as long as your body can take it. Remind you that the life of a dancer is very short. Recent studies show that the average retirement age for a dancer is 28, which means if the dancer is lucky, he or she will find some form of art connected with dancing or theater after retirement. If not, the dancer must re-educate him or herself, and adapt to a new environment that everyone else has already lived their entire life in. In other words, at that point you will enter the regular workforce to compete.
My recommendation will not be sufficient from reading two lines from your letter. I require much more data, such as who is your teacher, how many classes a day do you take, are you studying music, are you taking classes on the weekend, what technique are you studying, where was your teacher trained, what career did he or she have, how many years did he or she dance, and ultimately, what type of dance do you have in mind? Finally, my best recommendation would be, if you can afford it or have the courage, go to the best dance company nearest you (professional—at least working seven to eight months out of the year), and propose your question to the ballet or school master. I wish you the best.
Question 17—What is the best exercise or stretch to open the turnout? I know that each dancer has his or her favorite move to increase turnout. As I have gotten older, I find my flexibility is not as good as it used to be, so I have to work harder to maintain it.
Answer—Although it is true that as we get older flexibility decreases when it is not maintained; there are those who are able to increase their flexibility in this stage of life, such as yogis. Adapting some of their ways of life could have a positive effect. Reduce consumption of meat, meditate to reduce stress, and, of course, take yoga classes or Pilates.
However, none of these actions are as important as performing proper posture. This is where most major techniques differ; hence, studying one type of technique and mastering it becomes crucial. Proper posture reduces strain in movement and provides for maximum motion and turnout, and that is what you are looking for. Attempting to change your diet, and taking yoga classes in addition to your ballet classes, not to mention keeping up with your personal life and work, will soon cause you to feel overwhelmed just in trying to keep up with what it takes to achieve the desired motion or flexibility. Remember that dancing is not how high you can kick or do développés, but it is how you use what you have, and give the illusion that you have more to give.
Question 29—I am 13 years old, and in high school. I am considering taking performing arts classes. I can sing and act, and I want to know how to dance. I was thinking about taking ballet and jazz classes at ###, and I was wondering if I could ever be an o.k. dancer. I am not overweight; if anything, I am underweight. No, I am not on any kind of diet. I have just always been this way. I play other sports, like softball and volleyball, so I am in good shape. I do not want to dance professionally, just to be good enough to dance in performances. Do you think it is possible? I would be taking about three classes per week.
Answer—Aim for enjoyment, and make every minute count. Whether you are good or not is irrelevant at this stage. The path that a potential professional dancer will take is considerably different than the path taken by an amateur, even at a young age. You already know what you want. What is keeping you from getting what you want is your competitiveness with others. Omit that, and you will have what I first stated—enjoying every minute of your time invested in the dance studio.
Question 155—I feel like I do not know how to show my passion for dance when I am dancing. I have been dancing for about 11-12 years, but I have been a shy person my entire life. I have realized that when I dance I get this serious, worried kind of look on my face. There have been times when I have been told to smile, but one day a teacher explained that it is not a smile with your teeth, but a smile through your eyes, like a joyful look. There have been times when I did not want to dance. I wanted to be a normal person, but I still love to dance. So, it is like I’m having this little fight inside of me trying to decide what I want to do. How do I know if I’m passionate about dance?
Answer—You are not missing it. Your letter demonstrates self-awareness that comes from, in this case, taking dance classes or being involved in the arts. Self-awareness can occur in many ways, but it basically is when the individual is silent or pre-occupied intensely with something. The dialogue that you refer to, inner versus outer, is also common among dancers; a love and hate relationship. Ability to recognize this and, yet, have the need to proceed is the difference between continuing and diverting.
Proper facial expressions, depending on the part you are playing, must be adopted, not unlike proper tendus, dégagés, or pirouettes, requiring being mindful of who you are in relationship to the parts you play, and mastering and maintaining it while on stage. Very often, teachers in the established art culture misunderstand the difference between a performer’s happiness and projecting happiness. The assumption is that if the artist is happy, the happiness will be projected to the audience. In many cases, this is not true.
Let us look at it in a different way. If you are sad, does it mean that you are going to project sadness several hundred feet away to the second balcony? Chances are those audience members are not going to be able to see your face. The happiness or sadness of the dancer has little to do with the projection of one emotion or the other. The ability to project happiness or sadness must be through the body, and the way the artist or the choreographer uses it. For example, in sad movements, the music might be slower; hence, the dancer moves slower. Just by these two elements alone, one can project a different mood than when the movements are faster and the music more upbeat. Imagine a dancer performing so emotionally that when the piece is over he is in tears. Did the audience pay to see a man or a woman in tears, like a standard theater? Or, did they pay to feel the emotion that the dancer was feeling inside, which produces the tears?
Calling all professional and retired artists—important artist survey. Just takes 5 minutes to complete and you can remain anonymous.
I am studying artists who are engaged in non-verbal communication.
The intention of the survey is to finalize a paper on the subject. The published paper will only use data from the survey and not identify any individual. In the final stage, the survey should reveal any problems or issues that non-verbal communication artists face.