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Why is Rothbart turning maidens into swans?


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#31 MissChristine

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Posted 09 June 2005 - 11:54 PM

I've once had a choreographer tell the story while staging the ballet and he implied that all the other swans were simply Swans. Von R. captured them and gave them to Odette to have as company because she was to be under his spell forever.
He also mentioned that he believed that was a good reason for Odette to have the short tutu while the regular swans had the longer more romantic type.

#32 rg

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 05:22 AM

the attached steel(?) engraving from THE ILLUSTRATED SPORTING AND DRAMATIC NEWS - November 17, 1877, p. 216 isn't especially unfamiliar - it's reproduced in most books on SWAN LAKE - but i'm able to scan it here b/c i recently acquired a copy of an actual ILLUSTRATED page.
i've always liked it, for all its poetic license, b/c it clearly shows the ballet's intention to indicate that as the swan maidens enter the moonlit clearing through the ruined castle they are clearly shown to be maidens and not swans - every current staging that goes out of its way to have the female corps de ballet variously peck away and frantically imitate birds should be reminded to study this image - it's one thing if these productions care to re-visit the libretto and pull away from the original scenario - the way matthew bourne has done - but it's something else to claim to be 'after' moscow/st.petersburg 19th c. traditions and insist on treating the female corps de ballet as a bunch of birds.
wiley makes quite clear that the illustrations we have from '77 production can't be taken as direct views of what the stage and its choreographic action looked like, but they do give a sense of things as they looked to '77 audiences.

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#33 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 14 August 2007 - 05:24 AM

thank you for posting that rg!

#34 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 08:34 AM

the attached steel(?) engraving from THE ILLUSTRATED SPORTING AND DRAMATIC NEWS - November 17, 1877, p. 216 isn't especially unfamiliar - it's reproduced in most books on SWAN LAKE - but i'm able to scan it here b/c i recently acquired a copy of an actual ILLUSTRATED page.
i've always liked it, for all its poetic license, b/c it clearly shows the ballet's intention to indicate that as the swan maidens enter the moonlit clearing through the ruined castle they are clearly shown to be maidens and not swans - every current staging that goes out of its way to have the female corps de ballet variously peck away and frantically imitate birds should be reminded to study this image - it's one thing if these productions care to re-visit the libretto and pull away from the original scenario - the way matthew bourne has done - but it's something else to claim to be 'after' moscow/st.petersburg 19th c. traditions and insist on treating the female corps de ballet as a bunch of birds.
wiley makes quite clear that the illustrations we have from '77 production can't be taken as direct views of what the stage and its choreographic action looked like, but they do give a sense of things as they looked to '77 audiences.


is the last dancer coming out of the castle, on the door, wearing wings...?

#35 carbro

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 08:42 AM

I think she hasn't yet completed her metamorphosis into a maiden. She'll probably lose the wings with her next step or so.

I notice that this was printed in The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. I guess Swan Lake Act II covers it all!

#36 bart

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 09:04 AM

Thanks, rg, for reviving this fasctinating thread. I love your comment ....

[E]very current staging that goes out of its way to have the female corps de ballet variously peck away and frantically imitate birds should be reminded to study this image.


By the way, it appears that this was your first (or one of your first) appearances on Ballet Talk, rg. A lucky topic for all of us.

AS I read the entire thread (a first time for me) it was fun to watch the early tension between the initial impulse to treat this as a "silly season" topic, and the way Alexandra literally pulled into back into serious discussion. :helpsmilie: With really interesting results. :)

Alexandra says:

She's a princess and princesses have ladies in waiting -- at least, that's what I've always thought.

But there clearly has been a movement to turn the corps into replica swans. (Don't we often see them -- or pasteboard versions of them -- gliding along the back stage scrim at the beginning of the scene?) Perhaps something akin to the idea of "physical possession" is what is happening. Ladies possesssed by the spirit of swans -- in which the literalness of "Is she a woman? Is she a swan?" is somehow irrelevant.

Doug gives us a translation of the original pantomime notations:

Prince: I beg you not to go away. I beg you. I beg you.
Odette: I am afraid of you.
Prince: Why?
Odette: You will kill me with your crossbow.
Prince: I will not shoot you, but will protect you.
[She bows to him, then evades him, etc.]
Prince: What are you doing here?
Odette: I am the queen of the swans.
Prince: I bow to you, but why are you a swan?
Odette: Look there. There is a lake. My mother cried and cried. An evil magician turned me into a swan, but if someone falls in love with me and marries me, then I am saved and will not be a swan.
Prince: I love you and will marry you, but show me where this genie is.
Odette: He is there.
Prince: I will kill him.
The mime is written in prose using the characteristic short phrases that suggest a fairly literal prose 'translation' of what was actually mimed, as opposed to what might be printed in the libretto.


I've learned so much from this thread. There are so many of us relatively new to Ballet Talk -- surely there's more to be added to this great discussion.

#37 bart

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 09:04 AM

Thanks, rg, for reviving this fasctinating thread. I love your comment ....

[E]very current staging that goes out of its way to have the female corps de ballet variously peck away and frantically imitate birds should be reminded to study this image.


By the way, it appears that this was your first (or one of your first) appearances on Ballet Talk, rg. A lucky topic for all of us.

AS I read the entire thread (a first time for me) it was fun to watch the early tension between the initial impulse to treat this as a "silly season" topic, and the way Alexandra literally pulled everyone back into serious discussion. :helpsmilie: With really interesting results. :)

Alexandra says:

She's a princess and princesses have ladies in waiting -- at least, that's what I've always thought.

But there clearly has been a movement to turn the corps into replica swans. (Don't we often see them -- or pasteboard versions of them -- gliding along the back stage scrim at the beginning of the scene?) Perhaps something akin to the idea of "physical possession" is what is happening. They are women but have been possesssed by the spirit (anima?) of swans -- in which the literalness of "Is she a woman? Is she a swan?" is somehow irrelevant.

Doug gives us a translation of the original pantomime notations. He makes me long to attend a truly traditional version, so I can see how this looks on stage.The lame half-mime you usually see has none of the urgency and desperation of the words.

Prince: I beg you not to go away. I beg you. I beg you.
Odette: I am afraid of you.
Prince: Why?
Odette: You will kill me with your crossbow.
Prince: I will not shoot you, but will protect you.
[She bows to him, then evades him, etc.]
Prince: What are you doing here?
Odette: I am the queen of the swans.
Prince: I bow to you, but why are you a swan?
Odette: Look there. There is a lake. My mother cried and cried. An evil magician turned me into a swan, but if someone falls in love with me and marries me, then I am saved and will not be a swan.
Prince: I love you and will marry you, but show me where this genie is.
Odette: He is there.
Prince: I will kill him.
The mime is written in prose using the characteristic short phrases that suggest a fairly literal prose 'translation' of what was actually mimed, as opposed to what might be printed in the libretto.


I've learned so much from this thread. Many of us relatively new to Ballet Talk -- or at least have joined after the thread was started in 2001. Surely there's more to be added to this great discussion.

What's your take on the Rothbart and the (are they or aren't they) swans?

#38 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 07:55 PM

Perhaps something akin to the idea of "physical possession" is what is happening. They are women but have been possesssed by the spirit (anima?) of swans -- in which the literalness of "Is she a woman? Is she a swan?" is somehow irrelevant.
What's your take on the Rothbart and the (are they or aren't they) swans?


Hi, bart, and :thanks: for your definition, which i think is the best one i've heard in a very long time. This has always been kind of a tricky question, specially if i'm taking somebody to see a "Swan Lake" for the first time, and this person can't make that much of an abstraction of the 'logic" of the story and concentrate on , lets say, choreography. And it doesn't only happens to the corps. I've had the same question formulated related to Odette, as soon as she pops in, regarding her bird-like mannerisms,("Is she a woman or a swan?") and also about Von Rothbart, specially if sometimes he really never gets to look either as a human evil Count or an owl, but rather a sci-fi-inspired-amphibious-look-alike. And then, the III Act, where people always listen to the "Black Swan" story...and again the question...("Is she a black swan?"), with my common answer being: "No, she's a woman dressed in black who has been enchanted by her father Von Rothbart to look like the other woman in white.Is the same ballerina". And then..."But why the Black Swan...?" and so on...Personally, i try to focus on the choreography and don't care too much about the accuracy on the design of the characters, knowing the real story, but it can be counfusing for the non expert public.
:)

#39 carbro

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Posted 15 August 2007 - 11:29 PM

I have heard and read interviews with more than one ballerina when the issue of Odette's characterization was posed, and the dancers said, basically, "Well, first you decide whether you want to empasize the woman or the swan. . . ." It's a combination of the dancer's emploi (as we're discussing on another thread), temperament and imagination. There is logic in the construction of the choreography, but not in the story. That's a fairy tale and requires suspension of disbelief.

If it's someone's first ballet, it won't be easy to decipher the dancer's intentions. It's a foreign language, after all. But after several viewings, especially of different dancers in different stagings, a viewer should be able to meet the dancer on the dancer's terms.

#40 rg

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Posted 16 August 2007 - 04:23 AM

re: wings, black swan, owl/genie

*wings: there are numerous swan/maiden myths that include noting the moments when these enchanted women take off their swan 'skins' etc. i assume the engraving is illustrating the moment when the last maiden in line is about to shed the wings she has in her swan guise. (also, angels of all sorts in christian iconography are frequently shown w/ swan's wings.)

*black swan: as noted on BT in various ways, this designation for odile is a twentieth century one, in the nineteenth century this imposter was simply called Odile.

*owl/genie: the first 1877 'von rothbart, evil genie in the guise of a guest' was pavel? nikailevich? SOKOLOV - i know of no images of him in this role; in the petipa/ivanov staging the role, called 'von rothbart, evil genie,' was first done by aleksei dmitrievich BULGAKOV - i've attached a scan of the one image i know of showing bulgakov in his 'owl' form - i don't know the one mel has noted of this character in his ballroom disguise.

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#41 Hans

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Posted 16 August 2007 - 05:47 AM

I thought it was pretty straightforward--at night, Odette and the other swans are women; it's only during the day that they are swans. Siegfried goes hunting in the evening (the daylight fades and lanterns are brought out during the Danse des Coupes) so when he happens upon the lake, he sees Odette being transformed. At the end of the night, Odette and her maidens turn back into swans and Siegfried goes home. Presumably the ball takes place in the afternoon, which is why we see Odette in swan form beating her wings at the window during the grand pas de deux and flying away at the end of the act, and by the time Siegfried reaches her at the lake, night has fallen again, so she is human.

#42 bart

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Posted 16 August 2007 - 06:32 AM

[ ... ] we see Odette in swan form beating her wings at the window during the grand pas de deux and flying away at the end of the act [ ... ]

I always assumed this was a vision or flashbasck Siegfried has which precipitates his memory of the oath. I also thought it possible that Rothbart might have created the vision to cause Siegfried even greater anguish. (I should add that I have no evidence at all for any of this.)

On the other hand, if Odette is really present, flapping away at the window, why are the courtiers, etc., so oblivious to it? And wouldn't this be uncharacteristically assertive and risk-taking of her, given her fears and understandablel skittishness in Act II?

I guess my kind of unexamined assumption -- based on productions which may or may not be authentic -- is another reason we need our ballet historians so much.

#43 rg

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Posted 16 August 2007 - 07:01 AM

i've always found the presence of 'mechanical' swans swimming on the lake a very fine idea.
certainly the vinogradov kirov prod. has them. ABT's blair production had one, obviously odette's swan b/c of the crown on its head; balanchine's ter-arutuninan prod. had them: a line of bareheaded swans plus one w/ a crown (vaes less felicitous re-do of the ballet also has them, w/ the crowned swan being seen last in the line at the ballet's beginning and very last, in the ballet's conclusion); and kudelka's prod. (designed by santo loquasto) has them in a good scale opposite the would-be distance castle.
baryshnikov's short-lived prod. for ABT had them, and he made very sure his swan maidens were dressed in am most feminine silhouette, very much along the lines shown in the 1877 engraving. i interviewed him for a story in the LA Times and i can still hear him insisting, w/ regard to the swan-maidens: 'they are not the birds, not the swans; they are the girls.' (or something close to that.) pier luigi samaritani's tutus for this production's swan corps, built simply but beautifully by b.matera in nyc were exquisitely made and shaped - gossamer soft, fine-tulle skirts on plain white bodices. when the prod. was discarded these lovely costumes were variously deyed and recycled for a few other ballets, but their first 'life' on ABT's female corps the ballet were their finest hour. additionally odette has a most distinct and delicate crown.
mckenzie's 'soft' swan for the transformation sc. to the overture, for his prologue, would have even more dramatic sense if the same scale swan could be seen swimming on the lake to the introductory sc. for the first lakeside sc. but at least his prod. does not change the princess odette into a ballerina a tutu, the way the re-vamped burmeister prod. for paris does. so far as i can tell burmeister prologue was meant to show princess transformed into a [mechanical] swan seen swimming on the lake at the conclusion of the overture.

#44 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 16 August 2007 - 09:02 AM

the attached steel(?) engraving from THE ILLUSTRATED SPORTING AND DRAMATIC NEWS - November 17, 1877, p. 216 isn't especially unfamiliar - it's reproduced in most books on SWAN LAKE - but i'm able to scan it here b/c i recently acquired a copy of an actual ILLUSTRATED page.


I LOVE the "girls" museline-like costumes and loose hair... :)

#45 rg

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Posted 16 August 2007 - 12:27 PM

the loose-hair look pertained in 1895 for the swan maiden ensemble as well as for ivanov's snowflakes in '92.
the 'bun head' is a later, rote, detail.


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