Tchaikovskys ballet of betrayal has inspired Darren Aronofskys psycho-horror film, Matthew Bournes feral males and a shocking tale of Irish clerical abuse. Beneath the sparkle, why does the dark heart of Swan Lake still trouble us?
The thrill of Swan Lakeis a melancholy one. Tchaikovsky himself, on hearing his music in concert in 1888, confided in his diary: Swan Lake. A moment of absolute happiness. But only a moment.
In this tale from Russian legend, a prince falls for a woman who has been transformed into a swan; he betrays her, and himself. In most versions of the ballet at least one of the heartsore lovers dies. In the 1895 version, most popular on classical stages (founded on choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa), the dancers breathless virtuosity is piqued by exquisite pain.
No other ballet carries the cultural charge of Swan Lake. This is why the hallucinating heroine of Darren Aronofskys 2010 film Black Swan and the feral male birds of Matthew Bournes stage version are so memorable. The storys near-mythic undertow is again present in Michael Keegan-Dolans Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, set in contemporary Ireland, which returns to Sadlers Wells this week.
The choreographer has a centuries-deep family connection with Longford, in Irelands Midlands, a frequent setting for his grotesque but heartbreaking work. One Longford man whose story resonated with Keegan-Dolan, and whom he drew on for inspiration, was John Carthy, who died in 2000: Circumstances in his life, nothing extraordinary, conspired and he had depression. After an unfortunate sequence of events involving a reluctant house move, a gun, a siege he ended up by being killed by the armed unit of the Garda.
Keegan-Dolans Swan Lake ditches royalty and romance, Tchaikovsky and fairytale trappings, yet burrows into the originals keening heart. His hero may be no prince, but is equally lost and burdened by his mothers expectations. His heroine and her companions are not glamorous ballerinas in feathery tiaras, but abused women who are transformed into birds to ensure their silence, to obliterate their distress and fury. This viciously corrupt and broken society shoves the vulnerable to the margins and Keegan-Dolan stages what may be Irelands least enjoyable knees-up.
I struggle with classical ballet, he admits, mostly to do with the power structure on which it was founded. He is especially aghast at the punishing regimes of the ballerina. Why are we making a woman stand in these wooden blocks that destroy her feet, and reduce her capacity to menstruate because shes not eating properly to fulfil a certain aesthetic? This is misogyny at a profound level. And yet we sophisticated people sit there and applaud. He recounts an unfulfilled commission from Moscow City Ballet. I lasted a day. I watched their ballet class and started to cry. The women all looked completely exhausted, the angry piano player Was this the thing that I wanted to dedicate my life to?
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