Jimmy Offesson on Drömmen om Svansjön

Applauses. A space expands between my hands, just to be gone when I quickly fuse them together. It’s about to begin. So many hands clapping. Individually, each clapping is quite similar, despite some small variations in force and timed pattern. The aggregated sounds are in discord, they become noise. The conductor arrives. The applauses, this one and the ones to come throughout the “Dream of the Swan Lake”, certainly lack each of those qualities that contributes to the awareness and acuteness of space, timing and movement executed on stage. Clapping as movement, how it shapes space and creates a shared experience of rhythm, might on an evolutionary scale be compared to the structural stages of amoebae. Certainly, this contrasts to what is delivered on stage, where the classical ballet movements conjures ideas about superhuman ideals. Movement representing something more advanced than mere human. Digging further into the Darwinian concept, intelligent design becomes present, and I wonder in what ways it’s congruent with the idea of choreography in the “Dream of the Swan Lake”.

The dancers’ athletic use of their legs, cutting space like a pair of scissors would be cutting soft fabric. And once cut, as that piece of cloth would hover in the air for a moment, so move the arms. It is remarkable how the dancers persistently defy the entropic law of gravity. And when the dancers excel in their performing, creating a momentum, an aesthetic sense of an higher order, the audience dissolves it with clapping noise. As yet another force of entropy, that nibbles the soundscape, soon to be repelled by classical music and synchronized movement.

In the Royal Opera House in Stockholm there is a certain character to the applause. I can’t put my finger on it but it’s certainly not the same applause at festivals, or at sport events, or when those parents that tries (really hard) not to show his/her pride when their child just has performed the first Lucia. The reason behind my obstinate focus on the applauses lies in my lack of experience attending to the Royal Opera House, and it reveals my limited knowledge in classical ballet. It also lies in my frustration to make sense of the piece, searching for a meaning that extends beyond the edges of the stage.

Watching the dancers staging an audition for a spot in the Swan Lake, the idea about knowledge transmission appears to me. One of the main characters, the choreographer, is showing his vision of the Swan Lake through movements, the dancers repeats his movements in order to show their understanding of his dance vision. Within the fiction of the performance, remarks about the dancers’ skills are made through gestures and mimicry. The relationship between the choreographer and the dancers in this part is educational in nature.

In education, one can talk about knowledge being transmitted between bodies or knowledge being transmitted through an archive. To make an easy distinction between the two; the former way of transmitting knowledge is dependent on living people showing each other (and thus, a knowledge that is negotiating with present matters in order to be able to transmit) and the latter way is more heavlily relying on text, architecture and artifacts (and such, a knowledge that refers to the idea of framing/preserving a specific “origin”, a fixed point in time).

This fictional audition part could have functioned as some sort of commentary about the interplay between these two ways of cultural transmission. Which is interesting when it comes to such a famous piece that is part of our cultural archive. A performance that somehow is preserved and kept alive at the same time. The swedish Royal Opera House as the place for cultural transmission, in the ambigious role of a museum and a dance stage. How is culture preserved, shared, kept alive? Regarding the Dream of the Swan Lake, how is the the story of creating the Swan Lake functioning as a meta-layer that keeps the performance alive in contemporary society? My impression is that it fails. And the few “contemporary” remarks, such as the high-fives that once occur, or the one time some sort of disco move happens, are futile concerning keeping the piece alive. And somehow, Disney is better at that kind of humor/irony.

Through this perspective, the performance doesn’t stay true to its archival mission. Nor does it succeed with its body-to-body transmission, as it’s not at all able to contextualising itself with issues of today.

Also, one can wonder: what is culturally transmitted? The story in itself is basically about jealousy, transformation, good versus evil… etc. That story is out there, everywhere, plenty on Netflix. Of course something other than narrative content is of importance here: the mission to keep the tradition and aesthetics of classical ballet alive. But what does that tradition uphold, and what is considered beautiful movements? The resemblance to a militaristic sense of time and order of bodies hints at a biopolitic that needs to somehow be commented on from within the performance.

The concept of “art preservation” is tricky because, on one hand, it’s always an act of exclusion. Other dance traditions won’t get the same attention. On the other hand choosing to preserve Swan Lake is a way to connect to history, to somehow anchor us, and to be in dialogue with contemporary and future art. In this way, the “Dream” in the title makes sense. It’s about the nature of collective memory and relating to something that seems to fade, as distance in time grows between the first occurance of the Swan Lake and this one.

I was not being able to enjoy the choreography, and despite my shortfall of accumulated cultural capital needed to decode everything, an inability inherited by “working class” nature, there is something amiss. Surely, I was impressed by the dancer’s discipline and execution. I applauded several times. However, I opened my mouth a couple of times too, creating space between lips, between jaw and palate, letting a dose of fresh air enter my system.