It begins with an empty stage and a thin mechanical sound. The leitmotif of The Swan Lake, that we usually know from a tender oboe, now sounds from a music box. Almost like a sign to the audience. This is what is coming. This is what you came for. The music box and its adornment, the tutu-clad ballerina that spins and spins. A couple of moments later, the music now having started from the orchestra and the dancers having entered, it is time to read the scenography (Lars-Åke Thessman); a rehearsal room that is elegant and drab at the same time. “All the world’s a stage” Shakespeare wrote, and included famous meta-plots in this plays. We are in front of the back of an opera. But there is no immediate risk of sliding into a mixing of reality and fiction. The dancers are rehearsing The Swan Lake, but the stern management that is supposedly taking the place of audience and critic alike on stage are not like us. They are, like the rest of the cast, ballet dancers to the toe-tips, even when they are not on them. And quite soon the question needs to be posed: is this packaging of The Swan Lake by Pär Isberg merely a contemporary wrapping to make it fine to re-gift the same present.
Most of what follows, with it convoluted and fantastical plot: prince and wizard and spell and so on and so forth, leads to climaxes where a classical ballet, The Swan Lake in Petipa/Ivanovs choreography is presented. A fact that actually ends up asking what the language and seduction of ballet is. The stage is taken by either a single person, two persons performing duets (if a woman and a man, the man lifting the woman around for much of the time), or larger groups achieving complicated synchronizations. If there is no immediate and more complicated move to perform the group, couple or individual runs around in a ring, preferably clockwise. There is a clear hint that the movements are semiotic, containing some kind of meaningful communication, but this mime necessitates a close familiarity with the plot to understand. In Isberg’s choreography much of the mime is truncated as if to say that what really matters is how the message is delivered. Much in the same way that the meta-theme is lost by having everybody, actors and actors acting actors, act in the same way. It is hard to know how seriously to take the plot, original and meta-level alike, this in a situation when it already is so fantastical that it really needs all help that it can get.
The first act soon moves from the rehearsal room to a dream sequence, though not a dream-like dream sequence as it does not seem so aware of itself. We are in the swan lake, the walls of the rehearsal room are hoisted to the ceiling and light (Ellen Ruge) and scenography combine to create an eerie and beautiful frame for the meeting of Siegfried with the enchanted world that is a result of the black magic of Rothbart, the prince’s rival. If the first part hinted at some kind of contemporary framing with the dancers in exercise cloths, the dream now reverts to a more classical, or antiquated, costume. Ballet is announced as clearly as the ice-cream van announces its wares with a signature tune. And this again poses the question: what is this? What does it have to do with the audience. Not very much, and this is also the thing. It is an art of idealization. An audience remorselessly far from physical prime in front of perfect bodies that perform painfully acrobatic exercises with an air of ease. Nature is to be suspended in a moment of magic. Siegfried often jump up in the air and seem to remain there for longer than seems physically possible. Nature can also be suspended by automation. In the passages of mass synchronization where tens and tens of bodies do the same thing human movement is transformed into a mechanic wonder much in the same way as armies in formation or factory workers by the conveyor belts. Inhuman, but beautiful.
After the pause we are back to a time more contemporary to our own. We are in other words back from the dream, but not in any exaggerated way. Sure, there are some movements borrowed from pop-culture, but the focus still lies in presenting ballet, showing ballet, being ballet. Maybe it would even have been easier to include some kind of critical elements, some ruptures of the inhuman elegance, in a straight-forward rendition of the classic Swan Lake. Now it is hard to know what to do with the wrapping. There is no obvious trash can to put it in and it is maybe not fantastic enough to recycle. There are many strange and inhuman practices with long artistic traditions, and it makes all the sense in the world to preserve a living relationship to these. But such a relationship can happen in the one who observes from her specific and situated point of view. To cloak it all in pointers to the now, rather than direct dialogues with it, creates an unnecessary middle layer. It is amazing to partake of the human form in these contrived ways; always tense, always pretending not to be. And the stories of eternal love, mistakes and redemptions are emotional clothe hangers that no one can miss when they seek to rest their sentimental capes for some hours at the Opera. It is quite enough. More cannot be a little more of the same.