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Old Swan Lakes reflecting new ideas

Posted on April 6, 2022

MCB swan lake 22 948 by Iziliaev

I’ve been conspicuously absent from this blog for a while. Shamefully, I don’t have a real reason. I could excuse myself by saying it was a kind of coronavirus fatigue. I looked back over this blog’s catalogue with warmth and interest, realising what a privilege it is to have this space to muse on dance. One truth discovered over the course of the past year, as the world made strides to remake itself in the wake of the pandemic, is that my time has been consumed by the act of dancing. Life outside of this seems to have just happened behind the scenes, without me taking much notice. Few things made me feel the urge to stop and interrogate through writing. Well, to everything a season, and happily I experienced a performance of Swan Lake that made me yearn to bask in its water for longer than the time I spent in the auditorium that night.

I saw Miami City Ballet perform Alexei Ratmansky’s historically informed production of Swan Lake, with designs by Jérôme Kaplan, on February 12, 2022, in what is a significant moment for a company more aligned with the speed and vigour of George Balanchine’s aesthetic. Ratmansky’s production, originally made for Zürich Ballet in 2016, and also performed by the Ballet of La Scala, Milan, is the first full length version of the Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov ballet the Miami company has danced. Company director Lourdes Lopez spoke in the New York Times of the six years it has taken to get it to stage, and it is a real coup to be the first North American company to dance this intriguing production. This blog won’t be an incisive review, but rather a recollection of what has stayed with me, because Ratmanky’s version is indeed different, and made me think about this ubiquitous ballet in some unexpected ways. Alastair Macaulay wrote an insightful introductory essay about the production for the digital programme Miami City Ballet produced (a feature of the contactless, post COVID-19 world we now all inhabit), detailing our relationship with the ballet over its performance history, the impact of its mutations and how alternative choices within the work can deepen our understanding of what Macaulay rightly christens “the most familiar of ballets and the most unknown”.

I grew up watching, and being enchanted by, Anthony Dowell’s 1987 production of Swan Lake for The Royal Ballet. I smiled when I found Jann Parry’s quote that “Dowell’s production of Swan Lake should never be anyone’s first”. I wasn’t aware of the finer points critics had made about the production’s late Romanov setting with its symbolist-inspired designs by Yolanda Sonnabend. It’s otherworldliness and the febrile, Fabergé-toned sweep seemed appropriate for a ballet that I was told at ballet school was essentially a romantic work, becoming the apex of the classical tradition in the eyes of the people who came after its conception. That this work of art can metamorphose over the years is part of its enduring appeal.

Photographs: Miami City Ballet in Alexei Ratmansky’s Swan Lake. Images by Alexander Iziliaev.

Dowell commented that he was trying to return The Royal Ballet’s version back to something closer to the 1895 production which Ratmansky has used as a reference point through his own intense study of Stepanov notation. In that way, I feel I had an easily commutable corridor into Ratmansky’s version, so parts of the ballet didn’t ruffle too many feathers for me. The exuberant maypole and stools that appear in the Act I waltz of Ratmansky’s production were also present in Dowell’s (albeit with choreography by David Bintley), and both productions retain a dance in Act IV set to Tchaikovsky’s Un poco di Chopin. Lopez continues to say in her New York Times interview that Ratmansky’s ballet is about “a woman and the tragedy of the human experience”, a sentiment beautifully encapsulated in this dance, bringing into crystal-clear focus the tragic poetry at the heart of Swan Lake. We see a prince who confronts his mistakes, and a woman who forgives them, even though she understands the course of both their lives are irrevocably changed. The inclusion of a crucial piece of mime by Ratmansky – Odette expressing that this lake side will be the place where she forsakes her life because of Siegfried’s betrayal – is vital. Without histrionics, both Odette and Siegfried seem to understand their story can only end one way, and instead of macabre shadows, there’s an exquisite beauty about the whole situation. So much of life fails to make any sense, but we carry on ceaselessly anyway.

For me, how Ratmansky has treated the swan maidens is key. These women rejoice in their nocturnal feminine guises, with softer body poses, more rounded groupings and a tangible sense of community. The soaring forward projection of the chest and eye line that a dancer possesses in an academic first arabesque is the image I most readily associate with the “white” act choreography, but whilst they abound in this production, it’s the use of the effacé line that seemed to assert itself. Effacé (meaning “erased”) is an open body design, which adds a depth and sense of perspective to a dancer’s pose and requires the dancer to be fastidious in their correct use of turn out in the legs. These can be beguiling and elegant body positions that haunt the mind. One such poetic example during Act IV is when a waltz step performed by each swan maiden is suddenly punctuated by an effacé devant line; the foot creating a sundial-like line with the shaded body. These moments of choreographic texture mark this out as a production full of contrasts that refocus the ballet from the excessive arm wafting we see by the swan maidens in some versions.

Dowell’s Act III was opulent and sensuous. We revel in Odile’s seduction thanks in large part to the provocative national dancers that precede her largest portions of dance. In Ratmansky’s stony, Persian-rug festooned ballroom, where Odile becomes more of a showy gypsy than a siren in a black dress, I felt like a respectful observer. This act was not perfumed with a sense of danger. I admire Ratmansky’s alternative steps and music to the more widely seen choreography attributed to Vakhtang Chabukiani for Siegfried’s ballroom variation. The timbre of brass instruments that see Siegfried perform exciting beaten steps draw him in new light for me.

Dance critic Ismene Brown has called Swan Lake an “act of private imagination” and it is stirring to know countless new productions of the ballet will proliferate, supported by Ratmansky’s excavation or not. Historically informed endeavours are indeed valuable for our contemporary reassessment of classics of the ballet canon when they make us feel more in touch with a moment in time, though I don’t know how dogmatic about a ballet’s text we can be when its original creators are now so far removed from us. What is a wonder is how something as simple as the inclusion in Act II of more hunters within Siegfried’s retinue – which Ratmasky reinstated – makes you honestly fear for the lives of the swan maidens. At those moments, memory becomes thrilling reality for one or two breaths, which is real magic.

Pictured: Dancers of Miami City Ballet in Alexei Ratmanksy’s production of Swan Lake

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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