Revisiting the magic and romance of 'Swan Lake'
Swan Lake – it is the one dance that best epitomizes classical ballet. If you don't know ballet, Swan Lake may epitomize what you imagine it to be.
Those stereotypical tutus of the swan princess Odette and her fellow enchanted swans and that Prince Siegfried in those white tights? Swan Lake.
That dramatic classical music by Tchaikovsky? Swan Lake.
Chances are, if you thought you don't know a thing about Swan Lake, actually you might. Even for a ballet newbie, it's vaguely and comfortably familiar.
The finale of Ballet Philippines’ (BP) 47th season entitled "Wings" was none other than its 8th re-staging of the full-length ballet Swan Lake. It ran from February 24 to March 5 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Main Theater.
It starred 3 pairs in the title roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried:
- Returning BP alumnus, Hong Kong Ballet soloist, and BalletMET company member Candice Adea and soloist of the Primorsky Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre Joseph Phillips
- BP principal dancer Denise Parungao and company member Garry Corpuz
- Soloists Jemima Reyes and Victor Maguad in their first lead roles in a classical ballet
Swan Lake, restaged by the legendary Nonoy Froilan, is based on the choreography and music of the 1895 revival by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's original 1876 musical composition. This production also features set design by Ohm David and costume design by James Reyes.
Well told tale
To understand Swan Lake is to understand classical ballet. Swan Lake is based on the Russian version of a myth so ancient and universal it has many versions in various cultures.
In the story, Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday by waltzing with peasants, when the Queen reminds him of his duty to choose a bride at the royal ball that evening. Perturbed by the prospect of an passionless arranged marriage, the prince is invited by friend to go on a hunt with his crossbow. They track a flock of swans to a lake as night falls.
Separated from his friend, Siegfried spies the flock of swans and, just as he aims for the kill, witnesses their enchanted transformation into maidens. He falls for the most beautiful, Odette, who tells hims that they are captives of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart who has cursed them with a spell that transforms them into swans by day. The lake is made from the tears of Odette's mother and the spell can only be broken with true love.
When Von Rothbart appears, Siegfried threatens to kill him. Odette intercedes, warning that if Von Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it cannot be undone. Siegfried shatters his crossbow and vows to win her heart and free Odette.
At the royal ball where Siegfried is to choose his bride from the princesses of various kingdoms, Von Rothbart arrives disguised in human form with his daughter Odile disguised as Odette. Siegfried is seduced, pledges marriage to Odile, but realizes his mistake.
Siegfried rushes to the lake at night to apologize to Odette when Von Rothbart appears and demands he honor his vow to marry his daughter. Siegfried and Odette instead decide to leap to their deaths into the lake. This shatters Von Rothbart's curse upon the swan maidens and kills him. Siegfried and Odette ascend to heaven as lovers.
Understanding is appreciating
Like all classical ballet, it is a story told entirely with dance acting and pantomime. The fact that the story was based on a well-loved timeless legend helps audiences understand the narrative, despite the lack of verbal dialogue. The absence of speaking lines has allowed ballet to transcend language and culture. Yes, even without reading the synopsis on the program or Googling the Wikipedia entry on your smart phone – though these truly deepen your appreciation – you will nonetheless be swept away by an excellent performance of Swan Lake.
“Swan Lake is regarded as the summit of achievement in the theater for every major classical ballet company. Nowadays, so many versions and interpretations of the ballet are available online, so audiences will likely have their own ideas of what Swan Lake is and what it should be like. It is our challenge to come up with an entirely new experience of this ballet,” notes Paul Alexander Morales, artistic director of Ballet Philippines.
The very essence of classical ballet is the illusion of weightlessness and the mimicry of flight. From moving en pointe (tip toes) to the grand jetés (leaps) and effortless pirouettes (spins), from the flouncy tutus to the lithesome tights, the goal of classical ballet archetypes has been to flout gravity itself.
No other ballet epitomizes this essence of classical ballet better than Swan Lake, where dancers mimic avian movement with birdlike mannerisms in a choreographed equivalent of onomatopoeia.
Morales noted the signature ballet moves of Swan Lake:
- The 32 fouettés: When Odile comes to the royal ball and dances with Prince Siegfried, she spins continuously 32 times on just one leg in exactly the same place, propelling her pirouettes with whipping motions of her raised leg without this foot ever touching the floor.
- The bourrée en couru: Performed by the Swan Maidens by the enchanted lake, it is a series of tiny steps on almost straight legs that make the dancer appear to glide effortlessly.
- The danse des petits cygnes: Literally the “dance of the little swans,” it imitates how cygnets huddle and move together for protection by making four dancers enter the stage in a line and move across sideways with their arms crossed in front of one another, grasping the next dancer's hand, and execute 16 pas de chat or jumps in which each foot in turn is raised to the opposite knee.
- The serrés: The bird-like flutter of legs performed by Odile where she strikes her foot to the supporting leg during her pas de deux (dance duet) with Siegfried.
- The swan arms: The undulating arm movements performed by Odile and the swan maidens that mimic the wings of a bird in flight.
These same moves are some of the most difficult in the ballet world. The opportunity to perform them is highly coveted. The risks are equally great. The slightest errors are in full view of audiences.
Yes, Swan Lake has so permeated mainstream subconsciousness that even the common man can critique performances down to its signature movements. Look for how closely Odette and her Swan Maidens imitate swans and cygnets with their birdlike mannerisms and gravity-defying movements. Look for genuine chemistry between the lovers as well as how masculine and heroic the Prince Siegfried should be. Look at dancers as actors and storytellers, and not just living sculptures. Look for swooning when Odile falls in love and heartache when the lovers leap to their deaths. And that's when you know you get it.
This most recent performance of Swan Lake by Ballet Philippines has reaped applause from audiences. Soloists Jemima Reyes and Victor Maguad earned their place as heroine and hero. They told the story well with dance, transformed themselves into bird and prince, respectively, made audiences feel both love and loss, and astounded all with both their virtuosity and passion. Ballet Philippines once again reasserted its virtuosity and artistry. It gave wings to our hearts. – Rappler.com
Writer, graphic designer, and business owner Rome Jorge is passionate about the arts. Formerly the Editor-in-Chief of asianTraveler Magazine, Lifestyle Editor of The Manila Times, and cover story writer for MEGA and Lifestyle Asia Magazines, Rome Jorge has also covered terror attacks, military mutinies, and mass demonstrations as well as reproductive health, gender equality, climate change, HIV/AIDS and other important issues. He is also the proprietor of Strawberry Jams Music Studio.