04 April 2010

Lago de los Cisnes

There is little better, in my opinion, than waking up to a sunshine-y bedroom when the air is cool and you have slept enough. This happened to me this morning, and considering that it was followed by another of my favourite things, going to talk to a friend whilst in my dressing gown (and then she made me laugh), I had a pretty good start to the day.

Actually, I had a pretty good start to the start to the day, because yesterday I went to London to get my hair relaxed and go to the ballet. I don't know if the hair relaxation was successful (although they seem pretty calm to me. Hahahahahaha), but I do know that, as a result of the application of the hot straightening iron to seal on the relaxant, my hair is now straight as a die. Somehow in the States they were able to give it a little curve at the bottom, which in my opinion looked much more attractive, but they couldn't manage that here - on the other hand, there were no cancerous formaldehyde fumes in the stuff they used on my hair, so what you lose on the swings you gain in the roundabouts.

The high point of the day was not the hair, however. It was the ballet. I went to see Ballet Nacional de Cuba perform Swan Lake. Swan Lake is my favourite ballet, and apparently if I told you the plot in person it would be your favourite ballet, too, because I told it to my hair stylist (she asked), and she was enthralled. Anyway, here it is. In fact, I was slightly nervous about this event, because the last Swan Lake I saw was at the Royal Ballet, and it was both dull as ditchwater and poorly costumed, and because Alicia Alonso, founder of BNdC, is famous for being autocratic and controlling, and the company is quite old-fashioned (as companies in communist countries usually are), so I was worried.

But I need not have been, because it was terrific. If you haven't read the plot summary, you need to know a couple of things for what follows to make sense. Swan Lake is the story of a man, Prince Siegfriend, and a woman, Odette. On the night before his 21st birthday, Siegfried is having a jolly time with some peasants, then decides to go swan hunting (as you do). Once he follows the flock of swans, however, he finds that they are in fact a group of women who've been laid under a curse by an evil sorcerer, Baron von Rothbart, a curse that can only be lifted if their leader Odette, finds faithful love. Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a frail and beautiful former princess (wearing white), wins her over, and promises to love her. The next night at his birthday celebration Siegfried's mother informs him he must pick a bride, but he spurns the candidates until suddenly a mysterious prince enters with his gorgeous daughter, Odile (who wears all black). Odile looks just like Odette, but hot, and through some excellent pas de deux dancing she seduces Siegfried, who vows eternal love to her, at which she and her father (von Rothbart in disguise) disappear. Siegfried, realising he has been deceived, goes to find Odette, reassures her of his love, and in order to break the spell they kill themselves by jumping in a lake (at this point my hairdresser gasped and said "Oooo no!").

A few years ago Kelvin Mackenzie of ABT added a little prologue to the ballet, using the overture as its music; in this von Rothbart, dressed as an owl, swooped about and we got the background of the curse. Utterly unnecessary. Who cares why she's cursed? Make up your own reason; it's more fun (you went right for, "she refused his beastly advances," didn't you?).

BNdC didn't have this prologue, mercifully. Truth to be told, I've always found the first act of Swan Lake pretty boring. I can never figure out why 19th-century nobility spend the nights before their birthdays hanging out with the lower orders (this happens in Giselle, too), and until we get to the pas de trois (here it is with Herman Cornejo, one of my favourite ABT dancers, at 8:00) towards the end of the act I'm just rolling with it. The same was pretty much true in this case, too, except that I noticed that all the male dancers were very good, and they had gorgeous feet.

Once the second act started, things got much more interesting. It turns out that NBdC do indeed do a very conservative version of Swan Lake. It also turns out that they are thumpers. When did this start? When I was small, we were told and told that it was vital to land quietly but for years now when I've gone to the ballet the men, in particular, land with great thumps. I guess that makes sense if there are 25 people on stage - the sound just adds up - but when those 25 people are supposed to be birds it sort of breaks the suspension of disbelief. It also breaks the suspension of disbelief if those alleged birds have some trouble transitioning between set ballet pose and other set ballet pose. At least once, the poor girls of the corps got themselves into position by essentially just walking, very non-balletically. Oh, dear. That being said, though, they did all hold their hands like swan's heads over them when they posed in fourth, which was very clever.

Swan Lake depends on its Odette, and this Odette, she was a bit of an oddity. I should say at this stage that I have seen many Odettes, and never a truly bad one. Probably my least favourite is ABT's Gillian Murphy, whom I once saw give a fantastic performance as the Black Swan at a Sunday matinee, but whom I saw a couple of years later in a televised performance and found to be all technique and little character (here she is doing the pas de deux with Angel Corella, who is a fine dancer, but who always grins like a maniac. He must be the happiest man in ballet. Save those teeth for a special occasion, Corella!). Anyway, this Odette started off, well, oddly. At first I thought she'd had a fight with her Siegfried, but at the end of their second act pas de deux, when they took their bow, he whispered something in her ear, so I though perhaps she'd been off and he'd helped her out (incidentally, I really dislike this development of taking bows in the middle of the ballet. What if actors took bows after they'd done a particularly famous speech in a play? Stop breaking the frame, please!). She just didn't seem very comfortable with him, and although I don't want to be difficult, she didn't seem entirely comfortable as Odette full stop. The only thing that made this scene interesting was the appearance of von Rothbart dressed as what I eventually realised was a moth (because it's night, of course). Which best it were to be, owl or moth, 'tis difficult to say, as Byron might have said, but what is not difficult to say is that the appearance of a giant moth flapping his wings in the background gives a certain zest to any ballet scene.

As Odile, however, she was much better. The piece de resistance of Swan Lake, in fact of all ballet, is the 32 fouettés Odile performs during her pas de deux with Siegfried. "Foutter" means "whip" in French and the fouetté is a turn in which the dancer stands on one leg, bends the knee, extends the other leg out in front, then whips it to the side to create the momentum of the turn (here is a demonstration. I give you this one because I am a left turner myself, and they're a rare thing). As you can see above, Gillian Murphy takes this bravura move and makes it even more bravura by adding doubles and triples (note the way she pulls her arms in to increase momentum), but they still add up to 32. This Odile did 29 singles, but she ended with a triple: this is quite amazing, because turning 29 times on one leg is exhausting, so to do your triple at the end is a feat. Not as much of a feat as what she did next, however. Odile lures Siegfried by performing a series of backward hops in arabesque - in all versions I've seen, three hops in plié, then one hop up to relevé (on pointe). This Odile, however, performed all her hops in plié, on pointe. It was amazing (you can see the whole thing here. This Siegfried is even better than the one I saw, who was very good).

I was irritated, though, by the fact that they chose to do a leap at the end. I like better the "backbend in triumph" of American productions.

All this made me muse, in a vague but mildly pleasing way, on whether some dancers are better Odiles than Odettes, and vice versa, and why. I myself have always wanted to be Odile: in the world of Swan Lake, it's pretty clear which one comes out better, plus the dancing is bold, bravura, and - if you do it right - quite sexy. But perhaps there are born Odettes - I'm a born Odette in real life, which is no doubt why I yearn to do Odile on stage.

I also mused to myself about why all Tchaikovsky ballets have national dance interludes. Nutcracker: national dance interludes cunningly disguised as dancing sweets (which Dr. Higher once thought were dancing Swedes, God bless him); Swan Lake: national dance interludes unashamedly undisguised, and utterly irrelevant to the ballet (although if you took out of ballets all the irrelevant dancing, you'd have about 2o minutes left). All I can say is that the gospodins (or whatever the plural is) of Tsarist Russia must have had a positive mania for the Dances of Other Lands.

At the end of the ballet it transpired that BNdC were indeed a very conservative company - and a very Soviet one! because in this version of the ballet Odette and Siegfried didn't die at all: instead, they reffirmed their love, Siegfried wrestled a bit with von Rothbart, and the spell was broken. Let me tell you, my friends, until you have seen a Cuban in tights tussling with a man dressed as a giant moth, you haven't lived a full life. Be that as it may, however, you may like to know that in the Soviet Union all ballets had to end happily, so the plot of Swan Lake was altered to have an ending in which the lovers lived. Apparently Castro feels the same way about ballets - or perhaps Alicia Alonso does - and there was this ending that sat very oddly indeed.

Still, an excellent night. Beautiful feet; men who could dance (increasingly rare in the world of ballet); and some hops on pointe that could knock your socks off. God, I love a good Swan Lake.

No comments: