Tutu or Not Tutu

by Max Sparber

Sswan Lake, that hoary old classic of ballet by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is not famous for raising critical hackles – but, then, really, how much ire can be raised by a story of songbirds in love?

Louise Levene, writing for London’s Sunday Telegraph on June 17th of last year, had a few pithy words about this much beloved ballet: “I remember quite liking Mats Ek’s Swan Lake when I first saw it,” she said. “I must have been drunk.”

Levene’s complaints weren’t about Tchaikovsky. She had a problem with Ek, choreographer for the Swedish Cullberg Ballet. Ek has been responsible for a series of radical revisions of classic ballets: He choreographed a version of Giselle in 1982 wherein the title character seemed to be suffering from brain damage, and in 1996 was the visionary who brought a heroin-addicted Sleeping Beauty to the stage. Now, with Swan Lake, he has recast the ballet’s chorus of swans from the traditional line of waifs fluttering slow circles en point into a mixed, and surprisingly beefy, collection of men and women, all clad in tutus. Were these actual swans, we should not be surprised to find them hissing, flaring their wings and lunging at onlookers.

The ballet’s main characters have undergone a marked revision as well – for one thing, they are all bald. Siegfried, our hero, is a brooding James Dean-type with a nymphomaniac mother. His romantic ambitions are, as always, for a swan queen; but rather than the demure, dreamlike figure in most productions, Ek’s queen is muscular, swaggering, and overtly sexual.

Levene sneered at this adaptation, calling Ek an “incorrigible grave robber,” and claiming that his choreography is too jokey: “Hardly a moment passes without another cheap laugh,” she writes, adding that “Ek seems almost desperate to be liked: his choreography is forever jumping and cocking its head at you like some tiresome terrier.”

But if Ek’s version of this ballet inspired Levene to fume, it has caused others to sing its praises: Nadine Meisner, of London’s The Independent, writing the same week as Levene, praised Ek as “outrageously radical” and “brilliant.” “This is a dance that goes straight to the essence and shows the dancers for what they are: people of extraordinary power and complexity; performers of mesmerizing commitment and energy.”

There’s not much to say about this – in the same week, at the same ballet, Levene saw a “pretentious, rather adolescent rewriting,” while Meisner saw a ballet of great invention. When the ballet plays at the Northrop Auditorium, some will agree with Levene and some with Meisner. Such is the nature of tampering with an established classic, especially when your tampering has the sort of flash and wit that some will see as gimmicky and others will delight in.

Ek himself makes a good case for his revision, and for revisions in general. In an interview, he explained that with ballets like Swan Lake, “You know them so well that you hardly see them anymore. You take them for granted. But if you sit down and really study it, there are secret doors opening to this very well-known land and it opens in a new way.”

“It’s a thrilling game for me to demolish something very well known and put it together again,” Ek added. No doubt not everybody will share in that thrill – but the Twin Cities has a sophisticated audience for dance, long past being shocked by men in tutus, long familiar with ironic takes on established classics. After all, we support a robust dance scene that includes the Ballet of the Dolls annual send-up of another Tchaikovsky chestnut, The Nutcracker (this past year also featured a Beach movie take on this Christmas standard, Jerungdu Theatre’s Surfcracker.) And even Levene felt Ek’s choreography deserved a few kind comments, saying that the Cullberg dancers tackle his muscular movements with “great style,” and describing the duets as having a “maniacally inventive force.” Whether by gimmick or by genius, every so often the tired old cliches of classical dance benefit from a vigorous goosing, and Twin Cities audiences can certainly count on the Cullberg Ballet for that.

Swan Lake plays at the Northrop Auditorium on Oct 11 and 12, (612) 624-2345.