Have you seen the documentary, Good Swan, Bad Swan? It’s narrated by former prima ballerina Tamara Rojo, the artistic director of the English National Ballet, and is really fascinating. If you have the least interest in ballet, music, art, or even love, you’ll be gripped.
I confess, I was one of the zillions of little girls who longed to be a ballerina. I loved the pink, the tutus, the tights, the fact that the older girls wore those mysterious shell-pink silk shoes with long shiny ribbons which were so beautiful yet, rumour had it, so painful. Being a ballerina seemed like a real-life version of the Little Mermaid (the Hans Christian Anderson version, not Ariel), where every elegant step was as painful as a knife. Alas, my enthusiasm lasted just about long enough to discover that putting on a tutu did not make you pirouette like a dream. There was a lot of hard work between arriving at class and wafting on stage as the Swan Queen, and I wasn’t up for that. I had neither the ability, the will nor the support – particularly when I accidentally dropped my ballet shoes out of a moving car. I thought they would like to dance on the breeze out of the open window. Then I kind of let go. Ooops.
But I still find watching ballet is one of the great pleasures of life, and having Tamara Rojo to explain the strange alchemy of Swan Lake was wonderful. Having danced it herself, she knows better than anyone the demands of the dual role, Odette, the pure and innocent swan maiden, and Odille, the seductress daughter of the evil enchanter who has cursed Odette. Playing both roles is a massive physical and mental undertaking, culminating in Odille’s triumphant feat of dancing 32 consecutive ‘fouettes’ pirouettes.
As usual, the Prince caught in the middle of these opposing female forces is an utter sap. He is unable to tell the difference between Odette, with whom he initially falls in love, and naughty Odille, with her wiles and her winning ways which are a million miles from Odette’s fragile purity. Honestly! And, if it weren’t glaringly obvious enough already, Odette is always in white, while Odille is in black. So he’s colour blind, as well as stupid.
The poor prince. He is just following a long line of twits who are misled by evil women, from Adam onwards. Of course, they are never saddled with the consequences of their bad choices, it is always the woman who takes the fall. In Cinderella, the prince is apparently unable to recognise his love unless she’s dressed in a ball gown, in the Little Mermaid he is, as usual, beguiled by an enchantress, and in Swan Lake, his short-sightedness condemns Odette to life as a mutant swan. I bet Odille later regrets her 32 irresistible fouettes. He probably goes off with the first pigeon that crosses his path.
I think Tamara Rojo is right, Swan Lake is ballet for most of us. It sums up the contradictions of the art form – the appearance of fragility, made possible only by huge physical stamina and strength. And it says a lot about the capacity for good and evil in all of us, and the constant quest for love, which is sometimes not quite worth the battle.