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Casting About the ‘Swan Lake’ Waters

After 111 years, the ballet “Swan Lake” should be considered “a work-in-progress,” according to British dance critic Alastair Macaulay.

Macaulay (currently guest critic at the New Yorker) was one of two dozen speakers at “Why a Swan?,” a recent weekend symposium on “Swan Lake” that attracted more than 300 dance historians, scholars, writers, critics and fans to San Francisco Ballet’s headquarters.

The symposium, sponsored by the Archives for the Performing Arts and Dance Critics Assn., was the first of its kind on the West Coast and served to focus attention on the San Francisco Bay Area, which Stephen Cobbett Steinberg, APA archivist and one of the arrangers of the symposium, called the country’s second-strongest dance center, after New York.

In a lighter vein, Steinberg suggested that the “Why a Swan?” title might have been modeled after the “Viaduct/Why a duck?” joke from the film “The Cocoanuts” and that the spirit of the Marx Brothers might be part of the event. Not very often, as it turned out.

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Topics at the conference ranged from the earliest choreography to the well-known Tchaikovsky score in Russia in 1877 to the enduring Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov version in 1895 to the version by San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson, which had its world premiere on the first evening of the symposium.

There were also discussions of the composer’s sexual preferences and speculations about those of the ballet’s male lead, Prince Siegfried (“a man who has trouble distinguishing between birds and women,” in the words of Janice Ross, co-arranger of the conference).

Simon Karlinsky, University of California Russian literature lecturer and author of “The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol,” spoke on the subject of “Seduction and Betrayal: Gender, Myth and Romance in ‘Swan Lake,’ ” illuminating the context of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality.

According to Karlinsky, the composer’s diaries indicate his frustration at being unable to dramatize his numerous affairs with men in his works. (The one exception is a minor opera, “Vakula the Blacksmith,” in which the hero is a working-class man of the type that attracted Tchaikovsky.)

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Also addressing the “Seduction and Betrayal” topic, Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt said the ballet was fraught with Judeo-Christian tension between Platonic, Romantic longing and the warmer desires of the flesh. Odette, she said, had both courage and clear vision and was “an embodiment of the qualities he (Siegfried) should possess.”

“Siegfried is immature,” she declared. “The only two challenging women he’s ever met are his mother and Odette.”

Whether Tchaikovsky’s personal life was reflected in his composition doesn’t change the impact of the work itself, according to musicologist Roland John Wiley, author of “Tchaikovsky’s Ballets.”

Wiley called the score the first instance of “specialist ballet music. . . . ‘Swan Lake’ was the turning point in the perception of ballet music. The composer was no longer the absolute subordinate of the choreographer and the dancer.”

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The score, Wiley said, is “the single element of continuity” in the entire history of “Swan Lake.” The other elements, as he and the other speakers pointed out repeatedly, change with each new set of artists.

Even the essential contrast between a black swan and a white swan, often characterized as the struggle between good and evil, is the product of a more recent artistic imagination. (The role of Odile, the “black” swan, was originally danced in a red costume, according to dance historian Dale Harris, who said the idea of a black swan was probably an American innovation.)

While Odile may have shifted colors, Odette, her innocent counterpart, has always been dressed in white, a color that signified purity of soul in Imperial Russia. Dance film historian John Mueller presented film clips of a number of white swans, including Galina Ulanova, Natalia Markarova, Margot Fonteyn, and, unexpectedly, combat-boot-shod comedienne Carol Burnett partnered by Edward Villella of New York City Ballet.

Other speakers at the conference included ballerinas Cynthia Gregory and Allegra Kent, who reminisced about their own experiences dancing the role in different versions, and Helgi Tomasson, Jens-Jacob Worsaae and David K. H. Elliott, the choreographer, designer and lighting designer of the new San Francisco Ballet production.

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Dance magazine editor William Como added a personal touch to the proceedings with a showing of slides of the best-known Odettes, supplemented with reports of his dinner conversations with them and tales of gifts such as diamond rings they had given him.

In spite of the obvious passion most of the participants had for the subject, an air of restrained politeness prevailed. The only time any sparks flew was at a panel discussion by East Coast dance critics during which Anna Kisselgoff of the New York Times spoke of the late George Balanchine’s version of “Swan Lake” as just another “suite of dances,” a description she attributed to Balanchine himself. Washington Post critic Alan M. Kriegsman, his temper obviously strained, differed sharply.

The only matter on which all participants seemed to agree is that the ballet they referred to as “a polite fairy tale,” “a Gothic horror story,” “a labyrinth,” and the “perfect blending of geometry and eros,” is here to stay.

As Willam Christensen, director of the San Francisco Ballet from 1938 to 1951 and the creator, in 1940, of the first full-length “Swan Lake” in America, pointed out: “If any parents have a little girl and she’s going to be a dancer, the first thing they want is a few feathers.”

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