I wish I could rewind a particular winter night about a dozen years ago at the Kennedy Center. I wish I could find all the people who were sitting in the right section of the orchestra at the opera house there, people who thought they were about to enjoy a memorable performance of Swan Lake, and tell each of them I’m sorry. I wish I could apologize to the camera man operating the large-ish equipment poised just over my right shoulder, one of several in the house filming a performance by American Ballet Theatre that would soon air on PBS. I wish I could say sorry to ABT’s Director, Kevin McKenzie, too, and to the cast. I would apologize to them all for the incessant squeaking of a particular chair in about the fourth row, for the slobbery gnawing on a rubber “cause” bracelet by its distracted young wearer, and for the unabated crinkling of a ballet programme’s pages, its inserts snatched up from the floor a thousand times over the course of a couple of hours.
Mainly I wish I could apologize to a particular boy, age twelve: I am sorry for dragging you into this venue, grand as it is, for a silly story ballet that’s a stretch for grown ups, too: you should be back in the hotel room watching a Harry Potter movie. Or doing something cool with your dad. I am guilty of cultural proselytizing, and I am deeply sorry. (But I still secretly hope some of it rubs off on you.)
Swan Lake was the first in Tchaikovsky’s famous Russian ballet trifecta, followed by Sleeping Beauty and the Nutcracker. If you had never been to a ballet and then watched those three sequentially, you’d see something emerge that feels awfully close to a formula that includes (among other things) national dances and what I like to call the Tchaikovsky Schmaltzy Waltz. Everybody on the planet is at least familiar with Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker if only from the music looped through any mall’s PA system during the holidays: it makes me want to claw my eyeballs out.
Swan Lake mercifully gets it over with quickly, right at the beginning of Act I. Music evokes powerful memories, and that waltz is no exception. My Aunt Jane taught ballet technique on Saturday mornings when I was about thirteen at my mom’s small school in Memphis. She routinely dropped the needle on the first track of a Swan Lake LP and just let it play while she took us through a solid half hour or so of conditioning on the floor before we did the first demi-plié at the barre. Cross training for dancers was not talked about much in those days: it’s exactly what this ritual was, though, our core musculature protesting to the strains of Tchaikovsky. I have an involuntary response in my gut to the Act I waltz every single time I hear it, dammit.
It’s the closest thing I can think of to synchronized swimming. Acts II and IV are also called the “white acts,” for reasons abundantly clear when you see the ballet. In my youth I failed to appreciate the immense job set before the corps de ballet in a single performance of Swan Lake; nowadays I find this work exquisite, and that is all. If you’ve never seen this ballet but someday have the opportunity, do yourself a favor: sit somewhere higher than the orchestra so you can observe the geometry unfold in the white acts. Forget the story: a prince falls in love with a swan queen? C’mon. There is a tad more to the plot than that, but still. Instead, let the ballet wash over you. Like, say, a lake. A swan lake. Or, le lac des cygnes, if you prefer.
In spite of the truly breathtaking moments in the ballet’s second act, it always inspires a few giggles. There is another waltz, but it is far more sublime than the big one in the first act (in my opinion). I can never listen to it, though, without hearing my mom singing “Sweet Rosie O’Grady,” because the first line of melody in the waltz is exactly the same. It was something mom and her classmates at Canada’s National Ballet School routinely sang as a bit of a roast when they were learning the ballet’s choreography. They also practiced the very stylized head movements of the famous foursome of baby swans in Act II, or the cygnettes, on the Toronto subway, so she said. It’s a fun piece of choreography I’ve taught before. A nineteenth century pop song and baby swans—you get them both in the second act. And a beautiful pas de deux, and a wicked difficult swan queen variation, and more of the hard-to-swallow plot.
This is where classical ballet draws from the canon of character dancing that is so much fun. In fact, I have never heard a ballet student or professional dancer complain about taking a character class or doing one of these dances. (Go here to see an excerpt from a Vaganova Academy character class, where the music happens to be from Swan Lake Act III; you’ll see what I mean.) There is character dance in spades in Act III. And the famous Black Swan Pas de Deux, with all those dang fouettés danced by the Swan Queen Odette’s evil lookalike, Odile. By the end of Swan Lake’s third act you know unequivocally things will end badly.
And this is why I would never recommend this ballet for a young child. (Or a twelve-year-old boy.) It still ain’t over. The music in the fourth act is worth the wait—if it is not trimmed in the interest of time, as it was the night I saw ABT’s version at the Kennedy Center. And you get more of that exquisite precision work from the corps de ballet. And a tragic double suicide. And the bad guy at last is finished. It’s classic Russian choreography, but there’s the rub: no two versions of the ballet are the same—it’s not like ordering a Big Mac anywhere in the world, where you can rest assured you’ll get a consistent product every single time (even if it’s meh). There are wide-ranging versions of the ballet with choreography that honors the original by Ivanov and Petipa, and others that take their leave of it. It’s a big ballet and some companies are hard-pressed to pull it off well.
Handsome Chef Boyfriend and I watched American Ballet Theatre’s version last night on our Blu-ray; we made it through the third act before calling it quits at the end of a long work week. But I wanted to prepare him for an upcoming performance we get to see at Providence Festival Ballet in a couple of weeks. If he’ll consent to it, I might throw another completely different version at him before we go, one by Royal Swedish Ballet that has a decidedly darker and more Gothic feel.
It has been a while for me and I am pretty excited to be in the theatre for live classical ballet, and to see my young friend Gwynn who dances in the company, after we missed her last summer when we visited the rest of her family. We shall be on our very best behavior, no rattling of programmes, or chewing anything, or bouncing in seats, I promise.
But I don’t promise I will remain perfectly silent. Sweet Rosie O’ Grady, laaaaah, la, la, la, la-la!
Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provenson, taken from my copy of Tales from the Ballet, a childhood favorite.