Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Re-imagining the Black Swan

Watching Black Swan the other night made me wonder what really were the roots of Tchaikovsky's most famous ballet, Swan Lake, and if it really did carry with it some of the dark roots Aronofsky attempted to uncover in his recent movie.

Seems like much of the early controversy surrounded the prima ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, who was not satisfied with the production, bringing in Marius Petipa and Ludwig Minkus to redo the choreography and the music.  Needless to say, this incensed Tchaikovsky who felt he alone had the right to revise the music.  After some fighting back and forth a compromise was reached and the prima ballerina seemed pleased with rewrite and first performed the ballet in 1877.

As for sources to the libretto, numerous theories abound.  Apparently, Tchaikovsky left few notes in regard to his inspiration, other than he had initially fantasized a "Lake of Swans."  Some of the possible sources are explored in BalletNotes.  The ballet we have come to know was largely composed after his death.  Of course what we do remember most is the music, which was quite a departure from the traditional ballets of the day and why Sobeshchanskaya probably had such a difficult time coming to terms with it, and called on Petipa and Minkus to clean it up a bit.

The idea of the white and black swans is principally about dualities, and allowed the prima ballerina to explore two sides of her character.  Some directors have actually split the role into two parts with two dancers.  In the recent movie, Aronofsky chooses to internalize this conflict, turning the classic ballet into an effective psychological thriller.  However, this film doesn't capture much of the dance aspect of the role.  In fact, we see very little dance in the movie, rather a splitting of the soul in Nina, as she becomes torn by conflicting emotions.  Natalie Portman flaps her arms uselessly as Nina, conveying little of her character in the dance sequences.  Of course Portman is not a ballerina, but still it would have been nice to see a little more care given to this aspect of the story.  Here is the lovely Zenaida Yanowsky, well known for her daring roles, demonstrating how to convey the rival swans in this video clip.  You can see her in a reprise of Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House through April 8.

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