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Last week we went to the Royal Canadian Ballet.  It was my first ever actual full-length ballet performance.  We saw Swan Lake.

Now, everyone knows Swan Lake is a classic.  There were bits of choreography that I'd seen in movies and hadn't even known were in Swan Lake - like the part with the four swans dancing in a hand-hold that is just amazing when you see it done live on stage.  Actually the whole thing was pretty amazing, and we didn't even see the headline cast.  Turns out at a Sunday matinee you don't even get the first understudy.  We got the third understudy, but it was still amazing.  I can only imagine how much more so with the real stars.

But what was even more interesting than that was that this was touted as an update of the classic Swan Lake.  The original plot, as I understand it, goes something like this:  Stupid prince is bored, his mother wants him to marry, but he's not so into the whole duty thing.   So he goes out walking by the lake at night and comes across a flock of swans that turn into women and dance.  He is entranced, has a lovely duet with the Queen Swan and they fall in love.  He finds out that she is held under the sway of an evil sorcerer, who arrives to stop the final pledge of love least it free the Queen from his spell.   Prince threatens to kill Sorcerer, but Swan stops him and he goes back to his castle.  The next day the Prince tells his mom he's not interested in any of the brides being paraded before him at the grand ball, and then the evil sorcerer conjures a black swan woman that looks just like the Swan Queen.  Easily fooled, our Prince has a wild dance with the black swan lady and pledges to marry her.  The evil sorcerer declares that the Prince has broken his word and can now never rescue the Queen from her spell, and he calls forth a flood that kills everyone but the Prince who runs down back to the lake.  There he finds the original Swan Queen who forgives him.  They dance, the sorcerer arrives and tells them they can never be together, and they defy him by jumping in the lake and killing themselves.   The end.

Apparently the ending was considered too dark or hopeless for a modern audience and the sorcerer's motivations too opaque, so things were changed a bit in the version we saw.  The sorcerer was now portrayed as a figure of nature, perhaps a deity of sorts who held the swans under his sway.  He has a major hate-on for the Kingdom and their defiling of the natural world.  The Prince is just as stupid, but this time we can see the bad guy setting his trap, drawing the prince in and putting the Swan Queen in his way, hoping to tempt him with her beauty.   One of the most interesting things to me was that the dancing of the 'civilized' people was wild and a bit chaotic, joyful, but very individualistic.  While the swans danced in careful, perfect precision, all dressed the same, all part of a greater whole.  It was very much portrayed as an ideal, sharper and clearer than what humanity was capable of.

So the prince dances with the Swan Queen and they fall in love, and once again the bad guy keeps them apart.  The Prince goes back to his kingdom and sulks, refusing to marry, and the bad guy turns up with the black swan lady.  But this time the implication is that in order to trap the Prince and have his revenge upon them he has sunk to their level, tainting the purity of all of the swans.  In the subsequent scenes all the swans are dressed in black and their movements are different, sharper, without the lovely grace and synchronicity of before.  Except for the Queen.  Her love for the Prince (dopey as he is) saved her, and when the Prince and the bad guy fight, she keeps trying to get between them, to stop them.  Eventually the bad guy kills the Prince, and then she stands as his protector, refusing to leave him, defying the now corrupt power that had previously held her.  She had found herself in their love, and even though the Prince was dead, she was transformed into something even stronger and more beautiful.  It was a lovely dramatic end, and I must say a whole lot better than having her kill herself for love.  In this version it is love that saves her from the fate of the other swans, and frees her from the bonds, even after the object of that love is gone.  

So why couldn't the Prince live?  Because his love was never as true as hers.  He was a flawed creature by nature.  But she was a true ideal, living far beyond the actual physicality of the two of them together.   It is the ideal of love that transforms us.

All in all an excellent experience, and one I'm glad I had a chance to have.


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March 2010

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