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Tarred and feathered: the blackest visions of Swan Lake

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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?

Natalie
Natalie Portman in Darrren Aronofskys 2010 film Black Swan the heroines mind and body become riddled with self-doubt and self-disgust. Photograph: Alamy

Swan Lake is all about power, Keegan-Dolan states baldly. I inherited a story from the ballet canon and thought, I need to invert this. My prince is someone who might seem lowly, but he is the only one who can see the swans, who represent women who are being interfered with and forgotten. But history refuses to be forgotten. His hero is a depressive outsider; his villain (the sorcerer Von Rothbart in Tchaikovskys original) is a messed-up abusive priest. It was easy to connect it to things that had been happening in Ireland. My Rothbart was a gifted boy, interested in spirituality and religion. But when he fell in love, the dysfunctional way we train priests made him behave in a stupid, ill-considered way.

Dont we hear that dark heart in the original? Tchaikovskys own writings provide few clues. I took on this work, he told Rimsky-Korsakov, partly for the money, which I need, and partly because I have long wanted to try my hand at this kind of music. The lush agitation of the scores central themes emerges with irresistible force. The musics obsessive grip recalls the story of the composer as a child, discovered sitting up in bed, exclaiming, This music! Take it away! He struck his forehead. Its here and it wont let me sleep.

Not everyone identifies narrative depth in the piece. The great choreographer George Balanchine produced his own crystalline one-act version in 1951, but scoffed: How can you take the story of Swan Lake seriously? Its time for a young prince to marry, he falls in love with a girl swan, and naturally nothing good comes of it. Its nonsense!

Yet individual dancers can express profound emotion. One critic hailed Margot Fonteyns heroine as all frozen pain and coldly crystallised understanding. Other productions tap into the musics currents of distress. James Kudelkas pitch-dark version for the National Ballet of Canada, revived this summer, highlights misogyny in a world in which the princes knights commit gang rape. The dancer Stephanie Hutchison says Kudelka portrays a society that renders women as meaningless chattels or objectifies them into unattainable ideals.

Margot
All frozen pain Margot Fonteyn as Odette in a 1966 screen version of Swan Lake. Photograph: Reg Wilson/Rex Features

This tension is familiar to the choreographer Francesca Harper, who danced with Dance Theater of Harlem and Ballet Frankfurt. I always felt, even as a child, that Swan Lake was about how there is duality in everything danger in grace, beauty in risk. She recognises this most prized role as also one of the most problematic. We need to re-examine the female image in ballet, she considers. It would be great to see a female choreographer tackle Swan Lake that perspective would be interesting.

In her white swan guise, the ballerina is a tragic figure; her suffering is, uncomfortably, our exquisite pleasure. No wonder that Swan Lake inspired pieces like the Dying Swan, a limpid solo set to Saint-Sans and created for Anna Pavolva in 1905. Three minutes of anguished flutter, turning, fading, a spirit sighing away from this cruel world. It has been the ultimate role for prima ballerinas ever since, such as the travesty troupe Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, which tweaks its tragic aspirations. Their scrawny swan moults rather than melts, scattering feathers as she reaches her big moment.

The white swans ruthless doppelganger is the black swan all gleaming panache and alluring display who was pivotal to Aronofskys psycho-horror movie. Natalie Portmans fragile ballerina in Black Swan incorporates the ballets lurid damage as she prepares for her debut, and Harper was a consultant on the film. The black swan solo is an iconic moment that everyone waits for, she says, its the enticement of the dark side. Darren always taps into darkness, and he captures the indulgence and sexuality of that moment.

Black Swan was disliked in the ballet community, but its phantasmagoric images draw from the works own peculiarity. When Aronofsky first heard that Swan Lakes spellbound heroine becomes a swan by night, he thought: Oh, a were-swan. Portmans dancer is tremulous with anxiety, dampening her voice to a shamed squeak. And, as in many horror movies, the heroines mind and body become riddled with self-doubt and self-disgust, presenting her with images of blood and ugliness, feathers and weird webbed feet.

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Very little palaver Alexander Leonhartsberger and Rachel Poirier in Swan Lake by Michael Keegan-Dolan. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Two forthcoming films also centre on the ballet and its feverishly exalted lead dancer. The Black Gloves is a Scottish chiller whose ballerina heroine attempts to cling on to her sanity, under threat from the mysterious Owlman. And Luca Guadagnino (who directed the romcom Call Me by Your Name) has cast Felicity Jones in a retelling of the source fairytale.

A bird on the ballet stage is rarely a blithe spirit. Stravinskys Firebird dazzles with ferocious intent, and Viviana Durante will launch a new dance company next year with early work by Kenneth MacMillan including the unnerving House of Birds (1955). Its based on Jorinda and Joringel, a harsh tale from the Brothers Grimm in which two lost children find a witchs house filled with caged birds who are actually transmuted humans. The girl too is bewitched, but eventually the creatures turn on their captor, pecking her to death. MacMillan, according to his biographer Jann Parry, made the story even more nightmarish. In hot-toned designs by Nicolas Georgiadis, dancers wore cage headdresses, with harnesses tugging their elbows into wings. One dancer, in an angry shade of crimson, has a harshly curved beak. This transformation is undoubtedly a torment.

MacMillan was repeatedly drawn to women in extremis and, Parry argues, imagined a painful metamorphosis from girl into bird. Maryon Lane, who created the role, described it as an agony. It was like being taken over by an irresistible force shaking with the effort of finding your arms and hands didnt belong to you. A similar sharp-boned possession occurs in Raven Girl, Wayne McGregors 2013 ballet based on Audrey Niffeneggers arresting graphic fable. This heroine craves transformation, yearns to be broken and rebuilt with glossy black feathers; the ballerina Sarah Lamb conveyed the ache of living inside the wrong body.

Wings
Wings of desire Sarah Lamb craves transformation as the heroine in Wayne McGregors Raven Girl (2013). Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

If the swan heroine is the wrong shape for this world, so too is the man who adores and betrays her. The ballets prince shuns his royal obligations, loses himself in the forest and finds himself in impossible love. Peter Darrells hero at Scottish Ballet succumbed to an opium daze; John Neumeiers at Hamburg Ballet was identified as the unstable Ludwig II of Bavaria, dogged by an ominous black-clad figure prefiguring his premature death.

The queer dance artist Joseph Mercier says of the classical canon: Im infuriated that it has shifted so little, with no responsiveness to changing political or social environments. His encounter with Swan Lake was partly provoked by the storys innate strangeness. He literally falls in love with a swan. Theres something super-twisted and messed up about it. Merciers Swan Lake II: Dark Waters is set on an island of feathers the carcasses of many pillows with a dead swan hanging above. It felt like a sequel that overlaps with the original narrative, he explains. In our mind, he wakes up having survived the end of the ballet, with the dead swan in his arms. We were interested in his loneliness. The character initially collects and hatches eggs, pulling an egg out of his bum. Theres a glimmer of the original choreography, and he becomes the prince. Albeit a prince whose apotheosis takes place to Dusty Springfields I Just Dont Know What to Do With Myself.

In contrast, Keegan-Dolans work excavates the misfit desolation in Swan Lake. I burned away anything that I no longer needed. Theres very little set, very little palaver. Its completely stripped back, which is risky, he explains. But when it works, it is beautiful.

Michael Keegan-Dolans Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is at Sadlers Wells, London EC1R, from 30 November until 2 December. Box office: 020-7863 8000.

This article was amended on 24 November. A subbing error led to the suggestion that the Dying Swan solo was created for the original Swan Lake ballet.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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