Yesterday, in our discussion of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, Swan Lake, we talked about the concepts of “doubling”, “shadowing”, and “mirroring”. We saw that the good and innocent young Prince Siegfried possesses a darker shadow, aptly named “Evil Genius”.
Costume-wise, I think that Evil Genius (EG) is supposed to be a drake. I know, I know, drakes are ducks, not swans. Male swans are white and fluffy, just like the females. (And bad-tempered, from what I hear.) But I still think that EG is a drake. He wears a sort of greenish-blue costume, and he wears a little tiara on his head, just like Odette. The tiara denotes that he is royalty. Perhaps even some kind of King. It is noteworthy that in Act II, during the “presentation of the brides” scene, EG actually seats himself on the throne, alongside Queen Mom. (And she doesn’t seem to notice, or mind.) EG literally assumes the position of Prince Charming’s absent Dad, King Charming. Quite Freudian, no? I could be wrong, but I believe that this intriguing bit of choreography was introduced into the production by Yury Grigorovich.
So, what makes Evil Genius evil? Well, it’s obvious. He kidnaps young girls and, through sorcery, turns them into swans. The Prince himself witnessed this process in Act I when he met Odette at the lake. The two young people danced the night away and fell in love. But at the crack of dawn — bam! — she turned back into a swan, leaving Siegfried bereft, yet vowing to rescue his love from this involuntary metamorphosis.
The Bachelor Party
As Act II begins, Siegfried’s mom has thrown still another party for him at the palace. And no, we don’t have Puss in Boots or Red Riding Hood romping around, although that would have been fun. Siegfried is a sort of Prince Hamlet type, dominated by his powerful mother. But unlike Queen Gertrude, this mom has no Oedipal pretensions towards her own son. She just wants to marry him off and see him on his way. The sooner the better. As the guests watch, with bored looks on their faces, an array of beautiful brides from different countries attempt to dance their way into the lonely boy’s heart.
When the brides have finished their show pieces, Siegfried approaches his mother. She mimes: “Pick one of them.” He mimes back: “Is that all you got? Nobody else?” See, he is still hoping against hope that Odette will come floating in, to rescue him from this unrequited longing. Tchaikovsky, as everybody knows, was the absolute master at portraying unrequited longing via music.
At that very moment, as if in answer to the young man’s prayers, Evil Genius struts into the banquet hall, escorting his protege, Siegfried’s True Love. The swan girl, Odette.
But wait a minute! Is this really Odette? The girl looks exactly like Odette. (It was Petipa’s genius to have the exact same ballerina dance the parts of the White Swan and the Black Swan.)
Same hair, same face, same tiara, same ballet slippers. The only different thing about her, is that she wears a black tutu instead of a white tutu. Girls, you must forgive Siegfried for making the mistake of thinking this girl is his lost love, Odette. Men never notice what you’re wearing unless you point it out to them. Isn’t it enough that he recognizes her face and body? Unbeknownst to him, this girl’s name is Odile. And she is E-e-e-e-e-evil!
Or is she?
Is Odile Evil?
Before proceeding with the very interesting story of Odile, the Black Swan, we are forced to take a sidebar for the benefit of American readers. Most of whom (I hazard) have not seen the actual ballet production and are familiar with the story only via the Hollywood version called Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as the two equally beautiful rival swans. The movie is a rather good psychological thriller, and, yes, I have seen it. And yes, I adore both Portman and Kunis. And yet I think the movie itself is evil, and I recommend that people not go to see it. Why? Because it presents a completely falsified view of professional ballet schools and the ballet subculture. And yes, I realize that a lot of what “apparently” happens in the movie is actually just taking place in the heroine’s schizophrenic brain. But even factoring that in, a false image is presented of ballet schools as apparent cesspools of physical abuse, verbal bullying, and sexual harassment. I am not a part of the ballet subculture myself, but I know people who are. And they tell me that this level of abuse and harassment is simply not possible. It does not happen, and it cannot happen. Ever. Not even in French ballet schools. For starters, ballet students at reputable schools are not verbally abused when they make a mistake. This is not an episode of Dance Moms, for crying out loud. Ballet students are never criticized. They are corrected. Firmly but gently.
Secondly, the open sexual harassment of Natalie by her coach is also not possible in a real ballet school. If sexual harassment did ever happen, it would be so secret and so subtle that nobody would know. If discovered, it would be swiftly rooted out by the management. Americans are prone to believe such lurid tales because they are a cynical people who have lost the ability to see good in anyone or anything. They watch reality shows and come to believe that every institution in the world is run by psycho bullies whose sole purpose in life is to torment their innocent victims.
The movie also instills the rather Old Testament notion that the essence of Evil lies in a woman’s sensuality. In order to get the Black Swan gig, Natalie has to vamp it up and prove that she is a tigress in bed. Even if just in her own imagination. Odette is Good because she represents the purity of True Love. Odile is Evil because she represents Sex. White Swan vs Black Swan. It doesn’t get any more stark than that.
Odile And Her 32 Fouettés
In the Bolshoi production which I saw, Odette/Odile was danced by virtuoso Russian/Ukrainian ballerina Svetlana Zakharova. Zakharova was brilliant in both portrayals. Her Odette was sad, depressed, vulnerable and needy. As would be expected for a young girl trapped in the body of a water-dwelling fowl.
Zakharova’s Odile, on the other hand, seemed …. happy and confident. Seriously. That was the extent of her evil. I like the fact that Zakharova didn’t vamp it up. She didn’t make “sexy” faces at the audience. She strolled regally onto the stage looking like a girl who just took her Prozac and has a much better attitude about life. She looked like a professional woman who just received a big promotion and is happy about it. To be sure, she is accompanied by her mentor, Evil Genius. But is she under his spell, or are they partners? All of these are very interesting questions.
We now get to the business of Odile’s technical pièce de résistance: Her 32 turns or Fouettés. If you are new to ballet, and don’t know what a Fouetté is, then you can read this piece by Alastair Macaulay for the New York Times. It even includes an instructional video by a ballet student, showing how the Fouetté (French for “whipped”) is executed. These are not supposed to be moving, or traveling, turns. Ideally, the dancer should stay centered in the same spot on the floor. Just like a figure skater with a scratch spin. Macaulay:
Odile, the dangerous but seductive antiheroine, returns to the stage near the climax of her grand pas de deux with the hero, Prince Siegfried, and revolves on one leg 32 times. Her raised leg, never touching the ground, provides most of the propulsion. After the first 16 bars, the music changes character; she carries on regardless.
This is an important point: The music changes, but Odile does not. She carries on with her whipping turns, almost like a clockwork doll.
According to wiki, the choreographer who introduced this trick, was Lev Ivanov, in 1894. Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani had been hired to dance Odette/Odile. Legnani was famous for her signature trick, Fouettés. It was to showcase her virtuousity that Ivanov and Petipa inserted the sequence of 32 whipping turns at that spot in the music. This was the most Fouettés ever performed in sequence on the stage. The public roared its approval, and demanded an encore. And ever since that day, every little girl ballerina has dreamed of being Odile and literally “whipping” the audience into a frenzy of appreciation.
At this point in our story, things are moving along to a happy fairy-tale ending. Siegfried is enchanted with his new bride in the black tutu. He approaches Mom and mimes: “Is she okay? Can I marry her?” Mom mimes back: “Of course, Son. She will make a wonderful daughter-in-law.” Which is odd, since Odile wasn’t even invited to the bachelor party. She and EG sort of … crashed it. But that’s okay. Mom doesn’t care who this dark bird is, or where she came from. She just wants her son to get married and start producing little cygnets as soon as possible. Siegfried gets down on one knee and proposes to Odile. “Will you marry me, my dear?” And Odile agrees: “Of course I will, dear Siegie.”
Back To the Lake
And this is the moment when the real Odette, in her white tutu, briefly appears on the stage as a vision to Siegfried. Beating her little wings frantically to attract his attention: “It’s me! It’s me!”
Siegfried realizes his horrific error, a case of mistaken identity. He rushes off to the lake to reclaim his true bride.
And this is where things get truly interesting, in the finale, where the entire Corps de Ballet in onstage, half of them white swans, the other half black. And we get to enjoy such crowd favorites as the delightful “dance of the 4 Little Swans, or Cygnets”. Here is a good youtube clip from a different production:
After this, and other show pieces and the temporary reunion of Siegfried and Odette, the story moves on to its inevitable and tragic ending. During the intermission Katya Novikova recounted to us the story how, in Soviet times, Yury Grigorovich had prepared his production of Swan Lake for a European tour. The Soviet Minister of Culture asked Grigorovich to alter the ending. He wanted to see a happy ending: Siegfried and Odette reunited in True Love, the spell broken, Evil Genius defeated and cast away.
Grigorovich refused to change the ending. In the real ending, as Tchaikovsky’s music makes abundantly clear, this story ends in tragedy. Of course, with Pyotr “Buzzkillovich” Tchaikovsky everything sounds tragic, even when it’s happy. Recall that scene in “The Nutcracker” when the ugly nutcracker metamorphoses into the Handsome Prince. Instead of joyous triumphal music, the orchestra wails like somebody just died. It’s like Tchaikovsky was trying to tell us: “Even in joy there is inevitable tragedy.”
In any case, Evil Genius triumphs openly here. Odette is lost forever, Prince Siegfried is left in despair. He will be kicking himself for the rest of his life about that mistake he made earlier. When he didn’t notice that tiny change in “Odette’s” wardrobe.