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Swan Lake — San Francisco Ballet Performance Review

Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet Performance

February 23, 2016



This was a superbly presented performance by the San Francisco Ballet.  I was impressed by how tight and precise the dancing was.  The first act was a little sluggish and consisted mostly of small groups of female dancers auditioning in succession for the role of wife to the Prince, who in the end is going to reject all of them.  The first act could have used a little more creativity in the staging and lighting.  It ended up being a little bland, but the second act was imaginatively staged and beautifully executed.  At one point 30 female bodies in snow white tutus as swans filled the stage in a stirring, graceful spectacle.  The quartet that emerged from this group was especially precise.  Tiit Helimets did a very impressive job with the character of Von Rothbart.  The pas de deux by Carlo Di Lanno and Sofiane Sylve was a vision of elegance.  The third act at the palace was another audition, but did not fall into the same banality as the first act by virtue of the presence of Odile and Von Rothbart.  There is a beautifully done pas de deux between Odile and Siegfried where an apparition of Odette appears at the end.  The tension created by Odile and Von Rothbart deluding the Prince and its exposure at the end gives the third act some dramatic substance which is absent from the first act.  The fourth act at the lakeside echoes the second act in its visual presentation.  The drama ends in a reiteration of Romeo and Juliet with the lovers committing a dual suicide together, which in turn kills Von Rothbart.  It is a very compelling, beautiful realization.

Now let me see if I can figure this thing out.  Swan Lake is a very conservative story.  It is a repudiation of romantic love, that is, the idea that people should choose their own partners for marriage based on their own preferences, or “love,” as opposed to doing as their parents, clan, tribe, or society advise or dictate.  More generally, it is a repudiation of the individual and the individual’s freedom to make the fundamental choices in determining the course of his or her own life.  Swan Lake champions the preeminence of fulfilling one’s given social role and the subordination of sentiment as the defining force in life.  One must accept and rise to the responsibilities foisted on one by society, and as prescribed by one’s elders.  Whether the man chooses the woman based on an ennobling conception of “love,” or whether he chooses her for the baser pleasures of sexual satisfaction, these are opposite sides of the same coin and are equally doomed to disaster.

It starts out with Princess Odette encountering Von Rothbart by the lakeside and he turns her into a swan — a white swan.  Who is Von Rothbart and why would anyone change a girl into a swan?  Well, we do it all the time, actually.  I looked up the symbolic meaning of the swan in folklore and it varies across cultures, but the swan generally has a positive connotation.  The white swan represents purity, dignity, fluidity, elegance, and grace.  Changing a girl into a swan is to elevate her.  It raises her esteem and gives her an aura of idealization, if not perfection.  However, she is only a swan by day.  By night she reverts back to being a woman.  The spell under which she is beholden to remain a swan by day can only be broken by a man’s vow of faithful love and devotion.  In other words, the vow of love, devotion, and faithfulness breaks the spell of idealization that has transformed the woman into a beautiful swan.  The man will then realize that he has not married a beautiful swan, but rather just a woman.  It is a negative comment on the impact of love, devotion, and sentiment on a relationship between a man and a woman.  The vow of love and devotion destroys the idealized transformation of the woman into the beautiful, ennobled swan. It means that men will ultimately be disappointed in the women they love.

In the second act, Von Rothbart shows up at the lakeside encounter between Siegfried and Odette, just as he does at every encounter between the two lovers.  Who is Von Rothbart anyway, and what is his connection to Princess Odette?  Rothbart (red-beard) is a Jewish name.  Giving the villain in the story a Jewish name probably reflects the anti-Semitism that was widespread in Eastern Europe and Russia during the 19th century.  It is similar to Shakespeare’s use of the Jew Shylock as the villain in the Merchant of Venice.   Although the Jewishness of Von Rothbart is not emphasized in the San Francisco Ballet performance and many people in the audience probably did not even notice the association.  More significantly than his being Jewish, Rothbart should actually be identified with Siegfried, the Prince.  Who else could he be?  Rothbart is the aspect of Siegfried’s psyche that transforms the woman into a swan and enables him to fall in love with her.  This is why he always appears whenever Siegfried is in the presence of a Odette.

Incidentally, it should probably be noted that the identity between the Prince and Von Rothbart excludes an interpretation of the story as social criticism.  In other words the tragic ending of the story cannot be seen as a rebuke of a society that refuses to allow young people to marry based on love because Von Rothbart is clearly the villain and Von Rothbart is the Prince himself.  So the story is about the flawed character of the Prince (an thus, of all men), and not the flawed nature of social customs.  The structured roles defined by society help rein in the potentially destructive aspects of men’s emotional nature that causes them to misperceive women, overvalue them, and thereby impel men to step outside the boundaries of class and custom and the authority of elders.

In the third act Rothbart appears with Odile, the black swan, who is in fact the flip side of Odette.  Odile is the sexualized aspect of Odette, the antithesis of the ideal of purity and nobility represented by the white swan, and Odile is the one that the Prince ultimately chooses — a much healthier choice, actually.  In folklore black swans tend to be harbingers of major change and are often ominous.  Black swans tend to be unsettling.  They portend an upending of the status quo.  In this case, the black swan represents an idealization of the sexualized woman, the woman as the unfailing source of sexual pleasure and satisfaction.  This is also an illusion within the man’s psyche, but of a different character than the ideal of purity and grace represented by the white swan.  Keep in mind that Odile appears accompanied by Von Rothbart, who is in fact the inner aspect of the Prince that powers these illusory transformations of the woman.  Necessarily the white swan, the pure, idealized woman, must die when the less noble, sexual woman becomes manifest.  And with the death of this ideal, the man’s illusions about women and his tendency to idealize them, embodied by Rothbart, whether sexually or ennobling, must die also.

Siegfried can only fall in love with a swan, either white or black.  Romantic love depends on this psychological capability of men to idealize and elevate their estimation of particular women and the satisfactions they can offer.  It is an altered perception of the woman.  The woman is transformed into a swan — of one sort or another.  The other women presented to the Prince were not swans.  He could not love them because he could not see them in the aura of either of these powerful illusions.  Maybe this is why the first act was kind of dull.  The Prince needed a woman who was under a spell, transformed into a beautiful swan.  But the spell was not on the woman, it was on him.  Siegfried is the one under the spell.  It is the spell of his own self deception about who this woman is.  It is this tendency of men to idealize and romanticize women that is personified in the character of Rothbart, and he is portrayed as evil and a destroyer of both men and women.  It is this villain, this propensity in the hearts of men to see women as something better than they are, that the story of Swan Lake repudiates.

The moral of the story, as in Romeo and Juliet, is that young love is based on illusions that are dangerous, futile, and ultimately self destructive, and that young people should follow the guidance and wishes of their parents in matters of marriage, rein in their passions, or channel them toward socially appropriate candidates.  We do the same thing today in our biases against wide age gaps between lovers and against relationships between adults and very young people. Tchaikovsky himself had a failed engagement, a brief disastrous marriage, and a decided preference for the same sex, so he was no great champion of heterosexual love.  Tchaikovsky is not rock and roll.  It is a very conservative, archaic, unappealing message for modern American people, but it came out of 19th century Russia, which was a very traditional, stratified feudal society.  It is very ably presented by the San Francisco Ballet in a beautiful, pleasing spectacle.

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