Magazine article The Spectator

Re-Inventing the Swan

Magazine article The Spectator

Re-Inventing the Swan

Article excerpt


Re-inventing the Swan

Swan Lake

Northern Ballet Theatre, Grand Theatre, Leeds

The dramatic weakness and the basic metaphorical narrative of Swan Lake have resulted in countless different readings of the old ballet. Still, most balletgoers, critics and dance experts frown at the idea of stagings that threaten the much-idealised 'authenticity' of what has come to be seen as the work's standard version. But what most modern audiences regard as 'authentic' is, in fact, anything but original. Take, for instance, the 'swan' arm movements, arguably one of the ballet's most distinctive features. Neither the mildly received 1877 version, nor the more successful 1895 one, boasted such a feature, which was arbitrarily interpolated into the choreography at a much later stage.

It is this sort of consideration that makes me think that David Nixon's new Swan Lake for Northern Ballet Theatre does not deserve some of the harsh comments it has received. Not even the fact that Nixon has rewritten a considerable portion of the old story worries me that much. After all, many of his illustrious predecessors altered the story and yet received undisputed international acclaim.

Nixon has opted for a reading that draws upon the psychoanalytical potential of the old fairytale, as well as on a mixture of intertextual links, whether they be biographical, social or political. The result, I must admit, is not flawless. Some may find it scandalous that the romantic love triangle between the wimpish Prince Siegfried, the quivering swan-princess Odette and the seductive villainess Odile, generally known as the 'black swan', has been replaced here by an allegedly steamy threesome involving a sexually confused guy called Anthony, a rather pushy, feather-clad girl called Odilia, and a not so confused gay guy called Simon. Yet, as many other choreographers have already proved, Siegfried's frailty was only a subtle, yet perfectly readable 19th-century metaphor for depicting confused sexuality. And, as such, it is perfectly translatable into something more immediate and accessible to a contemporary audience.

Without indulging in sensational, explicit images, Nixon manages to portray the development of the two men's liaison in a far more vibrant way than any other balletic portrayal of homosexual affairs I have ever seen. …

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