There are so many things going on in my head when I visit the Swedish Royal Opera House. Art is to me a very broad concept, but also edgy. Art is an integrated part of society. I do not think art is for everyone, and I fully respect people who do not care for art. When I say integrated part of society, I mean that it is fundamental to making a civil society, in all its complexity, function. Art is difficult to define, but for me it is an alternative meta layer of society where critical thinking, including self-reflection, in all its extremes, fit. This is a very wide art definition, but I want to narrow it a tad by talking about the public financed art sector. That is the art – us in the commonwealth have chosen though layers of representative democracy to distribute to a diverse set of artistic expressions, institutions, and smaller organizations and also to independent artists. These means we have chosen support art that most probably would not exist on a strictly commercial market and that the commonwealth – together and in many layers – have decided is important. Or with my own words “fundamental”. These quite pompous words I use with the backdrop of extreme conflicts around the world where artists and intellectuals are forced to escape. Often as the first, since they are perceived as the strongest threat. The Nazis for instance closed all French theaters during the occupation. And so on.
This strikes me during one of my rare visits to the Royal Opera in Stockholm. I have seen a new variation of The Swan Lake, called The Dream of Swan Lake. The Opera House in Stockholm is a braggadocios building from the 1700-hundreds. It was, as it happened, built on a French model. These buildings attract a certain kind of audiences. I, even though I enjoy a high cultural status, do not feel that I belong here. The people that work here, that I meet in the marble and gold foyer, all address me “sir”. I am directed to a seat in the first row. This means it’s approximately ten meters to the stage, but I can look straight down into the orchestra pit. When I arrive five minutes before the performance starts, 7.55 PM the 1st of May, the orchestra is already in place. All of them, I count 40 people are all randomly playing their instruments, fine-tuning and testing. They are placed in groups with instruments that resemble each other. The clarinet close to the flute and so on. Tucked away in a corner are the percussionists, the violinists are in front. 8 PM, on the dot, the conductor struts out from a door under the actual stage. The audience applauds as if on command. The orchestra stands up. The male, thin haired, but young faced, leader of the orchestra bows towards the audience and shows the musicians that they can sit, with a smooth wave with his arms.
The music begins to play. Most of us recognize it; it is the same old Pjotr Tjajkovskij from the original Swan Lake. I get a feeling that the orchestra can play it in their sleep. I look down at them sometimes during the performance even if they are not included in the piece. They simply generate music. The musicians exchange glances. Smile at each other’s performances and they keep one eye on the little intense conductor that vividly shows with his hands how he wants the note to be played and when.
On top of them, on the stage, a few meters away from me a man is standing. He stands on the right side of the stage. He is wearing tights and his enormous thigh muscles are the first things I see. They are even double the size of a normal soccer player. He is standing by a mini model of a stage. On this miniature scene four paper figures of classical ballerinas are placed, thin white women with white very short skirts. The room that the man stands in is made to look like a rehearsal space, it is marked by tall collars, huge mirrors and a fake window with light from “the outside”. We are talking about Meta. This is a ballet about the making of a ballet. The man shows clearly that he is thinking. He does so by constantly holding his hands to his chin. There is a woman by the mirror; she looks at herself while she is dancing, all of a sudden we see a ballerina in the mirror. She is dreaming of being one. All clear and crisp.
The room fills up with dancers. All this while the orchestra is playing the famous score. The studio, that looked so large as spacious is now full. I count 40 people. Without a notice the rehearsal begin, and the audition as it turns out. Formations appear and dissolve. Men lift the women up high. Some dancers are smiling others are fully focused on their dancing and turning partner. Some of the dancers look very young. They are all exceptionally well trained but no one has larger thighs than the “choreographer”.
They are rehearsing Swan Lake. The lifts, the duets, the jumps and the turns. They all try their best. While they are dancing others have fake silent conversations. The music has inscribed endings and often the dancers finish a difficult jump right at the stop in the music, to roaring applauds from the audience. Just when I think the room is full, enters a new group of people. They are clearly distinguished from the rest by having suit like tight clothes. A woman takes the lead. Who is she? The theater director? The financier? She is tall and thin, accentuated with high heels. She has a strange wig on, plastic and straight. She and her crew sit with their back to the audience looking at and judging the dancers. She offends some and especially one male dancer is really pissed off.
The story gets more and more unclear to me. The “choreographer” selects a new star, the small pretty ballerina that was dreaming in the first scene. This is the beginning of a two hours tug of war between the choreographer and the angry overseen dancer. They both want to dance with the same ballerina. Not too unexpectedly the thinking choreographer wins. A door opens in the back wall and the both of them strutt out in the night. It is now 11 PM.
Oh, in-between, many things happened they entered a dream world were the enormous ensemble danced distorted scenes from the classic. A sort of ”best of”. The dancers get to show their skills, shaped for decades for exactly this.
It is striking to me how my gaze and thought process is forced into a judgmental mode. From the “sir”-ing in the lobby, to the architecture, where gold and bible motives dominate. Over the greeting of the conductor, through the choreography and the dance all the way to the hierarchical applause in the end of the show were the larger roles get the center stage. Without being properly trained I see what bodies are best aimed for these movements and this repertory. I see how dancers are grouped together by height and skill. And how the “best” dancers succeed doing the most impossible movements with ease and a (somewhat stale) smile.
Pär Isberg, the real choreographer that put together this thing has given the Opera Ballet a reason to re-dance the Swan Lake. His reading is for this purpose not interesting as long as it is functional. This is not art. This is a way to maintain a genre that uphold and nourish already well-established conventions, and for this of course there is a large audience. Dominant conventions are the same thing as high recognizable quality. Regardless what I, or anyone else think.