Bewitched Women

Text for the program note of the Athens Festival, Summer 2001, on the occasion of the performance of Swan Lake

Programme note 1 Jan 2001English

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The motif of the “bewitched” woman is very old. It is already discernible in the tragic and sacrilegious women of Thebes, who were punished by Dionysus for not honoring him: plagued by the “curse” of excess and ferocity, they embarked on wild celebrations until their queen fell victim to temporary “blindness”, mis-taking (mis-recognising) her son for a beast and consequently killing him.

The 19th century though, offers the librettists of Swan Lake a different view of the “bewitched”, the “women without limits”, a view which is in accordance with the religious experiences of the centuries past, the social conditions of their time, contemporary notions of morality and the role of women in that era. A curse destroys once more the central female character as well as her beloved ones, without –though- the occurrence of ferocious murders and frenetic rites, as centuries of Christian institutionalized piety have “disarmed” women and have deprived them from participating in “impious” rituals.

In many of the 19th century ballet libretti the Evil, personified by a wizard or witch of the folk legends, and the Good, that is the pure female, a personification of the ideal woman, clash. The “field” in which action takes place is the heart of the male character of the story, and the catalyst in the final climax as well as solution of the drama, is treason, that which distorts the feeling of love, rendering it destructive. The tragic motif of “ignorance” continues to exist as part of the plot, though it has become a variant of the original form it used to have in the Greek drama which constitutes the element known as “tragic irony”: it is no longer seen as “inescapable fate” imposed by the Gods, but as a result of deception, machination or illusion, as the hero, Siegfried/Albrecht or other,falls victim to apparitions (visions) and mirages set up by the Magician/Evil in order to deceive him. In the 19th c., unusual and inexplicable psychological and spiritual states of being, that is dreams and madness, became the centre of attraction for poets and scientists. The “ignorance” of the hero is genuine, his frivolous or irresponsible behaviour towards his partner (Giselle/Geselle= partner, companion) is a “symptom” of an inexplicable –at that time- condition which helps to establish his “innocence”.The romantic hero’s treason may lead his beloved woman to the grave, albeit unintentionally, which means that as far as his punishment is concerned neither exile nor execution will follow. On the contrary, all is explained and Good will finally reconcile the spirit of the dead woman with the spirit of the man who is alive and relieved from remorse. Redemption comes and a predictable morale is offered to the audience after the untimely, unfair death, always of the woman, who, in her ideal form, seems to be too frail to survive abandonment, but capable of great generosity and forgiving.

In the myth of Odette and Siegfried (Swan Lake), one may discover a repetition of the Christian credo of the responsibility/guilt that the female/woman has played in the Fall. The woman therefore will always try to “expurgate” herself through sacrifice and extreme generosity. The bewitched (female) triggers the inner conflicts of the hero, which in turn are externalized through his inexplicable, “moody” behaviour. In Swan Lake (a ballet which belongs to the classic repertory, first choreographed in 1877/took its final form in 1895), as in Coppelia (the last romantic ballet, 1870), the first hint of the “femme fatale” can be seen, in the woman who unscrupulously destroys in order to take what she desires/wants, or dares to desire, that is the man-central figure of the ballet/play. In order to achieve that, she often deceives him, assuming/taking the characteristics of (disguising herself as) the chaste heroine/Good. The ancient motif of the disguise in order to test one’s faith, friendship, goodness et.c., exists in the Bible as well as in other very old texts. In Swan Lake, disguise has a tragic outcome; in Coppelia it is used as a comic turn. In both ballets, it leads to deception and helps to identify the female with Temptation or Evil, in its illusive, but externally innocent form. “Odile-Black Swan” and “The Woman with the Eyes of Enamel-Coppelia”, the doll (literally and metaphorically) without emotions who attract the male gaze and capture his sexual desire stealing the hearts of their “victims”, are the two sides of the same coin. They both reflect societal attitudes towards women in the 19th c., still indirectly “stigmatized”; these two heroines also reflect the attitudes of a gradual change in sexual practices and its objects. The “evil female” will become an object of adoration in its 20th c. perfected versions (the false Maria in Metropolis, Loulou, Blue Angel, Lillith et.c.). Odile and Coppelia mark the start of the appearance of the “bad girls”, a significant new orientation interrelated with a change in taste, lifestyle, aspects of male and female sexuality and their iconic representations and perceptions towards the body, all of which have been explored, used, transformed and developed in last century’s culture.

Swan Lake remains one of the most popular ballets. It has inspired even contemporary artists such as Swedish Mats Ek who has choreographed his own psychoanalytic version for the Mats Ek/Cullberg Ballet in the ‘80s. In his work he takes the relationship between the Prince and his Mother as the central theme, while for the English Matthew Bourne and his group Adventures in Motion Pictures, in the ‘90s, the plot gives the opportunity to criticize the loves and scandals of the royal family. However the original Swan Lake with the archetypical competing couple of the female figures, the white destroyable Odette and her alter ego, the destroying Odile (Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde?) was not an instant success. On the contrary, it was a big flop. Choreographed by Julius Reisinger for the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow in 1877, it did not please the audiences; furthermore, Tscaikovski’s music was considered inappropriate for dancing. Two more efforts were made to ensure that the ballet worked, but ended in failure too. Many years later, in Saint Petersbourg, in 1894, Marius Petipa assigned his assistant Lev Ivanov to stage the second act to honour Tschaikovski who had died a year earlier. The ballet was finally successful, and Petipa decided to choreograph together with Ivanov the whole ballet, in four acts, that is, as we know it today. In order to choreograph it, Petipa selected the pieces he thought he would need from the entire music score, leaving other parts of the work out. At that time such an attitude was no surprise, on the contrary the Maitre de Ballet could and would very easily do so, as the musician and the librettist were working under his orders and discipline. Therefore, Tchaikovski’s music was no exception to this rule. (Georges Balanchine would much later make use of the lost sections of the original score; in 1960, he choreographed his “Tchaikovski Pas de Deux” finding the best possible use for the “extra music” discarded by Petipa).

Petipa composed the first and third acts of Swan Lake, while Ivanov choreographed the so called “white acts”, the second and the fourth. Lev Ivanov, who all his life remained under the shadow of the Grand Master and died in poverty (1901), also choreographed the “Nutcracker”, the second best known ballet the music of which was written by Tchaikovski. His works bear the distinctive mark of a peculiar approach to the parts performed by the corps de ballet, the softer and less “rigid” use of the music and the emotional outcome of the movement in connection to the music, something which is in contrast to the “harder”, virtuosity focused, precision oriented style of Petipa. The ballerina who starred in the first successful production of Swan Lake (1895), was Pierina Legnani. She flawlessly executed the thirty-two fouettés of the “Black Swan” part, a movement she had brought on to the stage a few years earlier, when she interpreted the role of Cinderella, also choreographed by Petipa, Ballet Master of the Marinski Theatre in Saint Petersbourg, for forty-one years (1862-1903). A pupil of the “God of the Dance” Auguste Vestris and brother of the dancer Lucien Petipa, Marius had a successful career during which he altered the course of ballet. Characteristic of his works, were the triumphant divertissements in which national dances were interwoven adding to the colourful and joyous aspects of the spectacle, and the development of the plot around the pas de deux of the ballerina and her partner. This particular way of composing a ballet reached its apogee in the Sleeping Beauty, the third ballet the music of which was written by Tchaikovski (1890). However, as time went by, Petipa’s unchanged choreographing method became repetitious and made his strict rules of composing ballets to look old-fashioned and rigid. He did an increasing number of ballets over the years, in which the dancing parts were being developed against the plot, which was often nothing more than loosely connected episodes which served as a vehicle for an exhibition of virtuosity by the ballerina. The 20th century brought to the fore artists such as Michel Fokine, who rebelled against the stereotypes of the past and set out to “modernize” the style of ballet. The “unsettling spirits” of the new era demanded more realism, shorter spectacles and more freedom, discretely pushing the aging Marius Petipa (1818-1910), to retire in 1903. The entire Swan Lake was first presented in Prague in 1907. In 1911 it was staged in New York, and in 1934 the ballet was taken to London. (In this performance, Swan Lake is presented by the Kirov Ballet of the Marinski Theatre in three acts and four scenes, from the original choreography by Petipa and Ivanov).