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‘Swan Lake’ rises from fairy tale to myth

The Arizona Republic, by Richard Nilsen

Among the Bamana peoples of Mali, in West Africa, there is a ceremony in which dancers dress up as an antelope – called Tsi Wara – and imitate the movements of the animal. The dance shows a keen observation of the behavior of the antelope.

In Guadalupe, south of Phoenix, the Yaqui have their deer dance.

The imitation of animals is a universal practice, from the Ute Bear Dance to the Chinese Lion Dance to the Inuit Loon Dance – and let’s not forget the Funky Chicken.

This is what came to mind watching the amazing performance of Paola Hartley in Ballet Arizona’s Swan Lake and her evocation of the physical presence of a water bird.

Her performance is not merely a technical achievement, but an achievement of empathy and identification with the swan. Her first appearance jolted me out of my balletic complacency.

Tchaikovsky’s ballet is usually thought of in terms of fairy tales and the highest and most artificial of art forms, but its origins are in the imitation of animal movement, just like the Pueblo Eagle Dance or the Lakota Buffalo Dance.

It was startling to recognize the commonality of all these dances while watching the ballet – an art form normally thought of as the most refined, civilized, even aristocratic – and the most removed from our animal nature.

But it was also the key to unlocking the power of this particular ballet.

Most of us think about Swan Lake as the prototypical fairy-tale ballet: Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, who has been enchanted by an evil sorcerer and transformed into a swan. Siegfried is fooled into wooing the sorcerer’s disguised daughter, Odile, and Odette dies of heartbreak. It’s right out of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, and hence meant for children and inconsequential.

But there is serious metaphor working under the surface: the opposition of what is natural against what is artifice. Odette as swan is in touch with her animal – i.e. natural – nature, while Odile, who dances gymnastically during the Act II ball, is all artifice – dance technique climaxing with her 30-odd fouett├ęs after a previous 30 pirouettes. It is a showoff role, and Hartley spins it out magnificently.

This opposition of good nature vs. evil artifice was a popular 19th-century theme, from Rousseau on, but it also has deeper cultural roots. It is the theme of medieval romances. It is the trope that underlies the infidelity of Lancelot and Guinevere: how to live an authentic life when society presents us with a constant barrage of inauthenticity – those things we do because we are supposed to, not because we want to.

So, Prince Siegfried is required by society to marry, but he rejects the arranged marriages his mother presents him with, falling instead for the outsider, Odette, who offers him a vision of the natural state of things.

If you follow this metaphor as the ballet proceeds, you will no longer think of Swan Lake as a silly little story for 10-year-old girls. It is instead the story of all of our lives, and how we negotiate our way through our duties and desires. It rises from fairy tale to myth.

Ballet Arizona’s production, a restaging by Olga Evreinoff and Ib Andersen of the famous Petipa-Ivanov choreography, underlines this mythic opposition and makes this performance of Swan Lake not just a magnificent display of dancing, which it also is, but a deeply moving artistic experience.

Hartley will dance the twin roles of Odette and Odile for matinee performances with Michael Cook as Siegfried; for today’s evening performance, the roles will be taken by Natalia Magnicaballi and Astrit Zejnati.