The Magazine

Swans in Motion

Is ballet’s future as compelling as its past?

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By GEORGE B. STAUFFER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Apollo’s Angels

Igor Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes

Igor Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

A History of Ballet

by Jennifer Homans

Random House, 672 pp., $35

In Black Swan, Nina Sayers, a talented but sheltered young ballerina, comes undone dancing the lead in Swan Lake. The director of her company wishes to create a new version of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, one that requires the Swan Queen to assume a bipolar pose: pure and pristine as Odette, the virginal white swan, and wicked and wanton as Odile, the seductive black swan. Nina is perfect for the white swan, but can she abandon her one-dimensional perfectionism to become a convincing black swan? Pushed by the director, she gives up childish things—her stuffed animals, her domineering mother, her sexual innocence—and enters the adult world. In the process, however, she descends into a psychotic maelstrom, hallucinating and losing all sense of reality. On opening night she presents a brilliant, edgy performance, but wounds herself fending off a perceived rival in the dressing room. Bleeding profusely from the gash, she leaps into the lake at the end of the ballet and dies.

Or does she? By this time in the film, the line between fantasy and reality has become so blurred we don’t know for sure if the blood we see is real or another of Nina’s delusions. We can only be certain that we are being yanked around by the film’s director, Darren Aronofsky, who has created a splendid drama while playing with our expectations. But before purists discount the work as a cinematic debasement of the Russian classic, they should read Apollo’s Angels, which arrives in time to put Black Swan in perspective. There they would discover that Swan Lake has a past almost as tortured as Nina’s tribulations in Aronofsky’s movie.

As Jennifer Homans relates, Swan Lake began as a children’s ballet for Tchaikovsky’s extended family before emerging as a full-scale story ballet for the Bolshoi Theatre in 1877. The pedestrian choreography (by Julius Reisinger) and the dark, tragic ending (Odette and her suitor Siegfried drown in a fierce storm, unredeemed) did not please contemporary audiences, and the ballet soon faded from the repertory. It was not resuscitated until 1895, two years after Tchaikovsky’s death, when it was completely reset by the famous French-Russian choreographer Marius Petipa. But the revival was fraught with difficulties: Petipa, then over 70 and in poor health, delegated the lakeside scenes to his assistant Lev Ivanov, and the conductor, Riccardo Drigo, altered and shortened Tchaikovsky’s score. The tragic ending was replaced by a happier conclusion, and the action compressed from four acts into three. The original Siegfried, Pavel Gerdt, was too old for heavy lifting and had to be assisted on stage by a sidekick, Benno, whose presence in the intimate pas de deux with Odette turned it into an awkward pas de trois. Nevertheless, in this compromised form, Swan Lake became a big hit.

The work’s later history was no less complicated. In 1909 Swan Lake was greatly abridged for performance at the London Hippodrome. In 1950 Konstantin Sergeyev created a Socialist version for the Kirov Ballet, killing the sorcerer Rothbart at the end so that Odette and Siegfried could be united on earth, not in heaven—an allegory for the worldly triumph of the Soviet Union. A few years later in Moscow Swan Lake was used as a revenge vehicle for ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, whose triumphant performance with the Bolshoi Ballet forced the KGB to allow her to tour in the West. In the 1960s Kenneth MacMillan produced a Berlin Swan Lake filled with psychological probing, while back in Moscow Yuri Grigorovich presented another Soviet rendition emphasizing the emotional struggle between good and evil, with Siegfried and Rothbart as the protagonists. During the Cold War Swan Lake became Russia’s de facto national anthem, used by the Communist party as proof of Soviet cultural supremacy. Nikita Khrushchev complained that he was forced to attend so many performances that his dreams were haunted by “white tutus and tanks, all mixed together.” As we learn in the pages of Apollo’s Angels, Aronofsky is in good company using Swan Lake as a vehicle for his own agenda.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers