Agri Ismaïl on Drömmen om Svansjön

clip-2017-05-03 15;27;54.mp3


[ambient sounds: a wave of murmurs, the rattling of cutlery and porcelain a chorus of anticipation, like the rolling drums before a dangerous circus act, spoons hitting the brim of faraway coffee cups three times, always three times]

I can never tell if this thing is on. Hang on. OK.

[draws on a cigarette, inhales]

Ready? So…

Not entirely unlike the creation myth in the book of Genesis, or the character motivations in H.C. Andersen’s the Little Mermaid, the actual plot mechanisms of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake are, for lack of a better term, pretty batshit. [exhales smoke] The popularity of Swan Lake, its unrivalled presence amongst ballets in popular culture, lead us to take the story for granted, just as centuries of indoctrination make the notion of a woman created from a man’s rib seem totally normal. But let’s recap the story briefly: a prince goes hunting for swans one day — which would not be an OK thing to do in the United Kingdom, seeing as swans are owned by the regent as a consequence to the Act of Swans of 1482, but that’s neither here nor there — and finds that the swans he tracked to a lake have vanished and in their stead stand some beautiful women in tutus, one of whom is wearing a crown. She introduces herself as Odette, and explains that she has been transformed into a swan by a sorcerer-demon along with her companions, except she’s not a full-time swan, at night she becomes human again, maybe the sorcerer needed to level up on his MP before casting such an advanced spell, who knows. For some reason she has decided she is the queen of the other swans and the other swans seem to be, like, cool with that. Odette tells the prince that this spell will be in place until she gets married. So far, so Beauty and the Beast, right? (And it’s worth pointing out perhaps that the origins of this story can be found in Germanic and Russian folk tales).

[muffled thumps of a cigarette filter being smashed against the thick glass of an ashtray]

Though the prince knows right away that he fancies Odette, he doesn’t go ahead and marry her right away, because what’s a love-story without plot complications, right? Instead he goes back to his castle to have a party. Lots of women flirt with him but he still has the hots for the swan, because [unintelligible]. The evil Baron von Rothbart, who is secretly the evil sorcerer who has condemned Odette to her cygnine state, strolls in with his daughter Odile and gets her to woo the prince by pretending she’s in fact Odette. The reasons for this are unclear: you’d think it’d be to, I don’t know, get in on the prince’s massive wealth? Or to — via this trickery — leave Odette eternally a swan since the prince now thinks she has been turned into a human? But no, no sooner has the prince declared his undying love to Odile and proposed to her right there on the dance-floor than the Baron starts laughing and the prince realises it was all a trick and is distraught. So, this evil sorcerer was willing to essentially pimp out his daughter, and force her to marry a guy that he hates, just for the lulz.

As confusing as that is, it pales in comparison with just how whacky the final act is: Odette is all cry-face emoji telling her friends that the prince has betrayed her (which, fair enough, he kind of has), then the prince shows up and is like you swan-girls all look the same to me, please forgive me, and Odette to her credit says no because she realises that even if she’s a swan 50% of the time, she deserves better than this fuckboi prince who proposes to girls he meets at the club all willy-nilly. So the prince goes full-on berserk like a dude who has been politely rejected by a girl on Tinder, seeping with toxic masculinity, saying that she will be his whether she wants to or not, and tosses her crown into the lake. Then there’s a storm and they both drown. The end. (Yeah, bit of a rushed ending there: the libretto seems to have been written under a deadline).

[cracks open soda can]

OK, so now that we’re up to date as to what Swan Lake is actually about, how does Pär Isberg’s re-imagination Drömmen om Svansjön at the Royal Opera in Stockholm compare? [a sharp sip of soda from the rim of the can, a childhood affectation that still lingers] For some reason, Swedish choreographers seem quite enamoured with remixing Swan Lake — remember for instance Fredrik Rydman’s street dance reimagining where von Rothbart was a pimp, the swans drug-addled sex workers — and Isberg’s core concept seems intriguing: rather than do minor edits to the well-known libretto, he has written a new one in conjunction with his dancers and their dreams and relationships. From this combined dreamscape they have constructed a new narrative, which Isberg has turned into an entirely new libretto. So far, so exciting. [repeated clucks from soda being drunk straight from the can, the faint metallic patter of the carbonated beverage dancing around in the aluminium can]

But I guess all we can glean from the result is that ballet dancers don’t have very interesting dreams. Because we start with a demented tale of humans turning into swans, of evil sorcerers and completely unnecessary deaths, and all that happens after this narrative is filtered through the collective subconsciousness of several dances is… a performance about a production of Swan Lake, replete with stale love triangles and an interminable audition sequence where the ballet dances show off their moves one by one in front of a judgmental casting director. That’s it. [scratches of a lighter’s metal wheel striking against flint again and again in an attempt to stay lit. The spark turns into flame, there are muted pops, the sound of lips drawing on a cigarette trying to light it.]

We have become part of this incredibly insular artistic era, where art pieces reference other art pieces, characters in novels are all aspiring novelists and there are at least five tv-shows about show business currently airing. So, of course our protagonist here is a choreographer, and the whole thing is just a meta-version of something that already exists, coupled with a Mary Sue-like plot device where it is the choreographer who gets chosen — along with a young ingenue that he has a crush on obviously — to perform the lead, to the great consternation of a male dancer who was under the impression that the part was his. So, like any professional worth his salt, the dancer — cast as the evil Rothbart which is like the second biggest role in the whole production let’s not forget — decides to sabotage the whole thing. There’s then this whole meta element of course where the choreographer and the young woman dancer re-enact the traditional Swan Lake. Then the dancer who plays Rothbart (who has gone all method-actor apparently because he dresses in a black cowl literally all the time now) starts flirting with the dancer who plays Odette/Odile, and the two men pull the young woman between them like children fighting over who gets to play with a prized toy.

(In general can we say a wee little something about the heteronormativity of it all? Swans are after all known for being into same-sex couples, and there are recorded instances of male swans even booting a female swan from the relationship as soon as they’ve given birth so that the male swan can raise the baby with his male swan-lover. To spend all this time and effort trying to reimagine Swan Lake and still presenting a tired view of masculinity and femininity seems a bit lazy, no?)

[deep inhale]

You want a cigarette by the way? No, I should really quit as well. Anyway.


OK, so, the female dancer chooses the evil Rothbart because who the fuck knows, women like bad boys or some other reductive shit, and then there’s a cast party where the female dancer makes the choreographer think she still loves him and then joins all the other guests in laughing at him for being so foolish and thinking he deserved love (why, now that the narrative is decidedly non-magical would a human being treat someone she loved and who, for all intents and purposes, has done nothing wrong, in such a wretched manner is yet another of those things that remains unexplained. Bitches be crazy, I guess is what the character motivation is here).

After the party is over the choreographer is on the floor crying to himself because all his friends and colleagues just laughed at him and that kind of thing leads to serious trauma and years of therapy, and the young woman comes back in to, I don’t know, kick him in the nuts maybe, when she realises (how? why?) that she actually loves the choreographer and not the dancer guy. The choreographer and the dancer have a fight of sorts and the choreographer and the dancer guy is all alone. The stage is prepped for another performance the next day, the show must go on and all that.

[loud clatter of plates being dropped, smattered ironic applause from various patrons]

All of this makes me wonder: if this metafictional interpretation was all they could muster when reimagining one of the most seminal ballets in human history, what was the point of it all? Why not just do the classic Swan Lake? At least the OG version has weird sorcerers casting spells and stuff.


[unintelligible] Yeah, no of course the plot of a ballet is, really, as irrelevant as it is in a porn movie. You’re right. I admit there were many moments when the dancers broke several well-regarded laws of motion, hanging in the air for a few seconds longer than seems physically possible, and it’s pretty outrageous to sit in front of literally dozens of dancers defying gravity for your enjoyment and be like, yeah but what is the girl’s character motivation here? I mean I do get that. There’s a certain ethereal ecstasy involved in seeing bodies do things they are not supposed to: every once in a while when a character throws themselves on the stage do you hear just how loud it can be, and how lightly these dancers are treading. And there are some clever contemporary touches as well: brief hints of dancers incorporating contemporary dance moves in the party scene or the notes of a trilling flute corresponding to one of the casting directors scrolling through a tablet. The famous pas-de-deux in Act II has the excitement of a roller-coaster ride: it’s fun, sure, but there’s also a thrill in seeing whether there will be an accident or not… listen, if my metaphors are really cheesy, please do let me know. Google tells me I should equate visuals to feelings, light blue is like a spring breeze, red is getting punched in the face, etc etc, but really I have no idea.

[the crackle of an empty can crushed in a fist]

Anyway. Before the show starts we were discussing the ethics of ballet, this idea that the ballerinas suffer from various forms of eating disorders, their feet all fucked-up, all for our enjoyment. Should we really condone these barbaric olden-time practices, just because we find them pretty? Isn’t it like eating foie gras or wearing fur, to pay for the ballet? We joke, but it’s really only partly a joke.

Agri Ismaïl