April 26th, 2011

Transformations: queen into swan

Ballet specializes in transformations. After all, it changes the human body from a lumbering earthbound thing into an ethereal yet steely and gravity-defying, lighter-than-air, transporter of the audience into realms of beauty and transcendence.

Yes, it can be corny, especially the old warhorse ballets such as “Swan Lake” and “Giselle,” featuring doomed maidens and supernatural spells—and in the case of the former a princess who is half-swan half-human.

But that’s part of the fun of it all—going past the schmaltz and the drama and creating something Other. The abominable film “Black Swan” traded at least partly on this mystique.

One of my favorite moments in dance occurs at the end of the second act of the ballet “Swan Lake.” I’ve seen it countless times. To those of you who don’t know the story, it sounds quite absurd, and it is: the prince has been out hunting, sees a swan he’s about to shoot, but before he does so the bird transforms before his eyes into a swan-maiden (whatever that is). They fall in love, and she explains that an evil magician has put her under a spell. After he plights his troth (which occurs in dance when a person touches his/her heart and then holds two fingers aloft; it’s a mime thing) the magician comes out and changes her back into a swan again and she flies off.

That latter part is the moment I’m talking about. On the stage, when it’s well-done, it never fails to give me a chill. You can see the moment the spell starts taking hold, then her struggles to fight against it, and then the instant when the spell totally overwhelms her and she is transformed into a flying bird.

Here are a number of versions of the same moment, all with somewhat different choreography. None of them, of course, have anything like the same magic and illusion they convey on the stage. But they’ll do:

This next one is the great Russian dancer Plisetskaya (see this):

And here, for variety, is the much more restrained British dancer, Margot Fonteyn:

7 Responses to “Transformations: queen into swan”

  1. julia nyc Says:

    Wow, those arms of Makarova are one of the seven wonders of the world. Port de bras, is that what it’s called? Thanks for showing us this.

  2. Bugs Says:

    It’s called flappin’, only classy.

    Seriously, excellent article and comparison of wonderful dancing styles. Interesting how most of the ballerinas turn away from the audience or look upward, sort of detaching from everything around them. The smaller arm movements (flappin’) give a sense of increasing distance, too.

  3. Artfldgr Says:

    I was one of those ‘lucky’ people that got to see an all male version of swan lake on Broadway…

  4. Promethea Says:

    Thank you for showing these comparisons. They are beautiful and instructive.

  5. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    I’ve always been an admirer of the athleticism and discipline of ballet. Learning a few of the finer points has come a bit late in my case, but who knows, it never hurts to learn something interesting.

  6. Ben David Says:

    Interesting that even a solid piece of the repertoire like Swan Lake has so many variations. I thought there was a lot of focus on handing down the choreography – I think you linked to wonderful videos of Plisetskaya and Violet Verdy transmitting roles to younger ballerinas.

    And yes – Plisetskaya is amazing: technique that expresses without calling attention to itself. Unfortunately Makarova is already performing to an audience that applauds technique.

  7. Artfldgr Says:

    handing down is conservative

    ignoring the past and claiming your changes improve mozart is now…

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.


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