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Swan Lake:I can't understand....


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I have a question about Swan Lake that comes to my mind everytime I see the White swan PDD.

The moment of the story in which this PDD is collocated should be the moment in which the Prince meets for the first time Odette and he's hooked and charmed by her beauty.Then Odette tells her sad story of prisoning under Rothbart's power.Why is every dancer who plays Siegfrid's role about to cry,looking very sad during this moment?If He's captured by her beauty and he's dancing the PDD,shouldn't he give the impression to be charmed and in love,even happy to dance with her one love,instead of having a funeral expression?Do they want to make us believe he's moved to tears by her story and does not feel happy of meeting such a beautiful girl?Is he so sensitive?It's not Giselle and she's not dead(yet)...I wouldn't like that it's just a stereotipied interpretation,as for me a dancer who's not perfectly in the role,does not deeply understand the story and what a single gesture expresses,he's not a good one.

If there's a misunderstanding within what i say or i missed a passage please tell me.And if you have the right answer please give it to me.

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I think this is a very good question! I'm not sure there is a "right" answer, but I will say that I agree with you. I think when Siegfried looks angst-ridden, as though he knows he is Doomed, it takes away from the story. I don't remember Nureyev or Dowell (to name just two) looking this way. They were serious, but not pained. I vividly remember Patrick Bissell, who was a positively sunny Siegfried, one who matured as he was caught up in the tragedy his actions (inadvertently) caused. I think the story is that Siegfried enters that forest with a tinge of melancholy, but should be more sanguine, and hopeful, during White Swan.

I think this is yet another coaching problem. Often young dancers are left on their own, and know little about the story except that it's a tragedy and so think that this is "proper." Also, the tempi are so slow these days, that what was once a tender love duet sounds like a funeral dirge, so a dancer who is musically sensitive might be matching the music.

Other thoughts? Who have you seen do this scene that you particularly admire, and how did he (they) do it?

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I think when Siegfried looks angst-ridden, as though he knows he is Doomed, it takes away from the story. I... I think the story is that Siegfried enters that forest with a tinge of melancholy, but should be more sanguine, and hopeful, during White Swan.

I think this is exascerbated by giving Siegfried Act I solos that are increasingly melancholy, and also by the increase is stage business where von Rothbart mirrors his every doubt and agony, which sometimes means von Rothbart is pulling the strings, in other productions that he is simply Siegfried's dark side, etc. By the time he gets to the lake, he's a character who needs a decade of psychoanalysis.

I think Siegfried is frustrated by his mother's insistence on marriage, but feels there is something else out there, if he could only find it. He's not sure what it is until he sees Odette. I agree that, dramatically, at that point, he'd be happy, or at least relieved. This parallels his "Just In Time!" relief when Odile shows up at the palace in Act III, if there's an Act III. And if he's doomed in Act II, that suggests that he accepts his fate, and Act III and Act IV make little sense dramatically.

I think this is yet another coaching problem. Often young dancers are left on their own, and know little about the story except that it's a tragedy and so think that this is "proper." Also, the tempi are so slow these days, that what was once a tender love duet sounds like a funeral dirge, so a dancer who is musically sensitive might be matching the music.

Ballet dancers are taught to smile. I think sometimes that the only other expression I see on stage is "I'm going to rip your face off," which is more appropriate to Forsythe. Without an emphasis on mime training and storytelling, I think the dancers are on their own to come up with something for their faces to do when a smile is inappropriate.

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Do they want to make us believe he's moved to tears by her story (...)? (...) if you have the right answer please give it to me.

I don't think i have a right answer , but yes, it makes perfect sense to me that one would be showing sadness as somebody tells me a dramatic tale about his/her family. The fact that i like that person very much doesn't seem to justify anything else, at least to me. We still do it. Somebody at work, even the new lovely secretary that just started yesterday and which you can't seem to get your mind away from, tells you that she's scheduled to do some jail time for a wrong drug-related charge, and what do you do...?, i guess show some sadness at least, right...?

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Surely he'd be saddened and moved by her tale, but during the White Swan pas de deux, he's comforting her and getting her to trust him, to open up and to help heal her sadness. If he looks like the harbinger of Doom, it doesn't make any sense that she'd put her hope in him.

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Surely he'd be saddened and moved by her tale, but during the White Swan pas de deux, he's comforting her and getting her to trust him, to open up and to help heal her sadness. If he looks like the harbinger of Doom, it doesn't make any sense that she'd put her hope in him.

True, but i've always felt that he's telling her more like a "oh, that's so sad... let's cry together" type of thing...

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I think this is yet another coaching problem. Often young dancers are left on their own, and know little about the story except that it's a tragedy and so think that this is "proper." Also, the tempi are so slow these days, that what was once a tender love duet sounds like a funeral dirge, so a dancer who is musically sensitive might be matching the music.

As a young dancer I also feel left on my own and I've seen many times teachers tell their students to do a certain type of gesture even without telling them the meaning of it.It is very bad that in ballet academies there's not any sign of acting class,at least a mime class or any subject which can help you to be a better artist.Someone as an innate talent in performing,even if he/she has never studied acting.But many,many people are not used to express their feelings on a stage,also because in the case of ballet,you don't have the possibility to express yourself with the words.So it's harder!

It's also true that they teach us to smile,and in few occasions to be superficially gloomy.

Someone told me that only contamination will save ballet.Contamination with acting actually!

I think this is fundamental!Maybe It's because i grew up with the interpretations of Alessandra Ferri or Baryshnikov...now i can't see any dramatic role without similar spirits and such huge performing skills.And this kind of superficial performances is more common than someone would think.And very very common at high levels and among ├Ętoiles.

Let's take the example of Manon,just to detach from Swan Lake.Diana Vishneva,Lucia Lacarra,Polina Semionova....big names,same superficiality...very flexible legs,very gifted bodies...but then?

To get back to Swan Lake,I've unfortunately always seen sad "Siegfrieds" not for sure conforting Odette....only "Cry You-Cry me"princes going to "funerals".I was just wondering whether it is the real intent of the Choreography.Just to know how to behave if one day I'd get this role....Now it's up to you;-)

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My own feeling is that a variety of interpretations are possible. What kills the performance is if the Siegfried does not really understand his motivation and has not been carefully trained in a movement vocabulary that expresses it eloquently and plausibly.

Often young dancers are left on their own, and know little about the story except that it's a tragedy and so think that this is "proper."
As a young dancer I also feel left on my own and I've seen many times teachers tell their students to do a certain type of gesture even without telling them the meaning of it.It is very bad that in ballet academies there's not any sign of acting class,at least a mime class or any subject which can help you to be a better artist.Someone as an innate talent in performing,even if he/she has never studied acting.But many,many people are not used to express their feelings on a stage,also because in the case of ballet,you don't have the possibility to express yourself with the words.So it's harder!
It must be especialy difficult for young dancers, most of whom will not have had the chance to live through anything like the emotions and experiences of radical loss, betrayal, entrapment, and hopelessness that Siegfried encounters when he meets Odette.

Coaching involving motivation, a give-and-take of disscussion between the young dancer and a mentor, and learning the appropriate movement and mime vocabulary: all would have to be of tremendous help.

In the absence of such support, it must be very tempting to the young dancer simply to pick a plausible interpretation from Column A or Column B and hope that it works. Thus the generic, arbitrary, and unsatisfying play-acting we sometimes see.

Great topic, by the way. Thanks, dancerboy87. It's always wonderful to see these things through the perspective of a dancer, especially one at the start of his or her career.

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I remember a Siegfried who actually showed an arc of emotional progression through Act2 from fleeing the court in frustration & melancholic yearning, through the shock and surprise that such an unfathomable beautiful creature/woman should appear and then allow him near, to an almost ecstatic (even orgasmic) expression of love and relief to have & hold such a being, only to be heartbroken when she must become a swan again and leave at dawn, to a final determined resolve to do something about the situation as the curtain descended. If the entire Act was only shown in close-ups of his face, that progression of purpose and emotion in him, and the plot in general, would still have been discernable and understandable.

Of course it helps to have an Odette who is equally capable of acting/reacting too--and though I've seen beautifully graceful, or elegantly regal swan queens, I've never seen one yet give the same fully realized emotional performance as Odette in Act2. (Odile of course is MUCH easier--vixen/vamp and all else in between, and all Odette in Act4 has to do is look heartbroken & determined to die.)

Siegfried's complementary actions to the above included....

*Kneeling as Odette finishes her story--in homage to her royal blood too? or in submission/acknowledgement of her telling it to him?

* An almost hesitant momentary look back at Odette (in doubt? to reassure himself or her?) just before he swears his love.

* The several times he folded his arms around her and tried to press closer, yet cautious of her fragility and still birdlike tendancy (visible in the choreography) to flee.

* The expression change midway in the pdd, as they both turn away from each other, (his unsure of himself, his actions, or his future), and then the relief (you can actually see the shoulders relax down and a half-smile appear) as Odette comes up behind him and brushes her hand down--showing her acceptance and care for him?--before doing that pique arabesque into his arms once more.

* And that almost spiritually ecstatic expression (Bernini's St. Theresa has it too) when he's got her tight in his arms or actually managed to caress her.

Not an altogether regal prince, or detached one, and any elegance is inherent more in the technique than demeanor, but definately not a Siegfried attending a funeral.

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Coaching involving motivation, a give-and-take of disscussion between the young dancer and a mentor, and learning the appropriate movement and mime vocabulary: all would have to be of tremendous help.In the absence of such support, it must be very tempting to the young dancer simply to pick a plausible interpretation from Column A or Column B and hope that it works. Thus the generic, arbitrary, and unsatisfying play-acting we sometimes see.

This is so true, bart...actually, your words reminded me those of Lorena Feijoo, principal dancer at SFB on this subject...:

"I have always appreciated what I learned in Cuba. Especially now when we don't have time for anything. They say 'Giselle' and we have to put it together in a week. I can do this because of what I learned there. My training engrained in me a style that is not only technique but a real focus on the details. For me it was fascinating to see Alicia Alonso give the same importance to the mime as to the dance steps."

http://www.archives.scene4.com/june-2005/h...honigjun05.html

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Story ballet and acting skills is a strange journey into "fiction". These stories are crystallized into a few hours of dance, sometimes spanning long periods of time, with no or no character development, of course no dialog except some mime perhaps. We bring a lot to the performance by knowing in advance the storyline and view the performers as providing little vignette interpretation of a plot, along with the emotional energy that the characters might be experiencing. Most is expressed in abstraction - dance and many of the stories are "fairy tales" which are quite the stretch from reality to begin with. They're beyond fiction... their fantasy.

To experience a story ballet both from the audience perspective and from the dancers perspective is to enter into a completely different realm of fiction or fantasy or storyline. We carry over concepts from all sorts of other literary and artistic experiences. We are expected to read between the "lines".. make all sorts of assumptions and leaps of faith and to conclusions.

I know little about the history of ballet and how a ballet story was intended. I don't care as long as the dancing is beautiful and these artists can create some sort of illusion I can be pulled into for a few hours. For me it is 99% about beauty and form and how the human body can be a means of communication without words. Sure, emotions imply relationships and storyline and we may want to force more logic to what we are seeing. But really... it's all fantasy. I can't cry for what a character is experiencing as others do... I could cry perhaps because it is so beautiful. That's ballet to me. But I know nothing about it.

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Alexandra: I think this is yet another coaching problem. Often young dancers are left on their own, and know little about the story except that it's a tragedy and so think that this is "proper."
Helene: Ballet dancers are taught to smile. I think sometimes that the only other expression I see on stage is "I'm going to rip your face off," which is more appropriate to Forsythe. Without an emphasis on mime training and storytelling, I think the dancers are on their own to come up with something for their faces to do when a smile is inappropriate.
bart: Coaching involving motivation, a give-and-take of disscussion between the young dancer and a mentor, and learning the appropriate movement and mime vocabulary: all would have to be of tremendous help.

Through personal observation and understanding of my daughter's training (who was lucky enough to have danced many major classical roles as a ballet student in her Vaganova school), a teacher who is a good one-on-one coach as well, will impart to a dancer the right facial expressions and the motivation behind them, so that the dancer does not have only the happy face/sad face choice open to her/him. What bart writes is what I have seen happen at my daughter's school.

The dancer who has not had this advantage, but has somehow still made it to the professional stage, must have gained something else besides technique in order to get her that far. Top dancers are known for their intelligent, sensitive portrayals of the characters they embody. Left "on their own", to quote Alexandra and Helene, I think that most would find the resources needed to bring appropriate emotions to their roles. There are always some who don't seem to be doing this, but sometimes I think it is the fault of their particular face and how it responds to manipulation, rather than their lack of comprehension of the reason for the emotion (Gillian Murphy come to mind as a dancer who has difficulties with her face).

Alexandra, I know you have tons of personal observations to bring you to your viewpoint, so I respect what you have written. All of us who discuss issues in ballet tend to generalize, I think, from the base of our own experience within a topic. I can't speak knowledgeably about those aspects of ballet that are not in my realm of familiarity. I guess that makes me somewhat of an empiricist.

I still contend that those dancers who garner principal roles in "good" companies have more to offer in their interpretations than either a happy or a sad face. The fact of their getting so far in ballet hinges on more than their technique. I also acknowledge that is difficult for a soloist who is still a fairly young teenager to have much depth to her/his acting simply because of the time factor involved (it takes many years to grow a dancer and many more to grow an actor on top of that). It seems to me that these youngsters do have their mentors, though, and are hardly left on their own. Lastly, I give leeway to those dancers who, through no fault of their own, cannot get their faces to convince the audience of the feelings they are trying to unleash. They must rely on other parts of their bodies to make up for the lack of artistry in their faces.

I have not been able to see much NYCB since the 1960s, although I follow them. I think that there we have a whole different kettle of fish, still inspired by the ghost of Balanchine, and that the aesthetic followed there, and its reason for being, extends to other companies -- not all, but some -- that are run by former City Ballet dancers (here I am guessing).

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I agree with Marqa in that these are performers and not people doing acrobatics. They have to have a knack for acting and "emoting" to get the principal roles... don't they? I don't know that acting is taught or not... who would teach it? Dance instructors or acting teachers?

Don't we all learn to act a bit just by having to navigate through social situations?

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I agree with Marqa in that these are performers and not people doing acrobatics. They have to have a knack for acting and "emoting" to get the principal roles... don't they? I don't know that acting is taught or not... who would teach it? Dance instructors or acting teachers?

In what company? Merrill Ashley described in her book that when she met her husband in 1974 -- and she was already cast in Principal roles at the time -- he told her that she had two expressions: big smile (I can't remember his less-than-complimentary description) and what he called her "pained ballerina" look. I assume if she had gotten this feedback from anyone else, she would have mentioned it. Which meant that neither Balanchine nor any of the ballet masters nor Jacques d'Amboise, who chose her for his small performing groups, had worked with her on her facial expressions in any detail.

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Of course much of our emotions is conveyed in facial expressions and people varying in their own range of facial emotions. But acting is also gesture and so forth and these are part of movement and the body and would be the province of ballet training. I see what appears to me as some decent acting at the ABT. I assumed it was self taught but there was some sort of coaching in there. Anyone???

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Even though both Siegfried and Odette are falling in love, which is a happy thing, Act II is really about the horrible spell she's under. She has no reason to smile. So how would it look to see the pas danced by a plaintive Odette supported by a happy Siegfried? Shouldn't they inhabit the same general emotional zone?

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I believe the Kirov Academy now has acting classes (Alexandra, can you confirm?) and I know other major ballet academies have had them for years. It's about time!

I think in the US, those who naturally have acting ability along with the right technique, &c are the ones who rise to the top. However, this does not mean that we couldn't have principal dancers who act much better than they do or companies full of expressive dancers.

At the risk of blaming Balanchine for everything, I wonder how much his dislike of acting contributed to this. (I also wonder if he had difficulty watching plays, operas, and TV because of all the "acting.") It's not that a talented dancer can't connect with an audience on a very basic level, but beyond that some ability/training is required to be able to show nuances of character and plot.

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Sure, emotions imply relationships and storyline and we may want to force more logic to what we are seeing. But really... it's all fantasy. I can't cry for what a character is experiencing as others do... I could cry perhaps because it is so beautiful.

Interesting...In my case, the percentage of "dance" vs. "acting", (and i guess we're getting into another popular thread out there), varies depending on how do i classifiy the work. "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" are, no doubt, plenty of fantasy, but their main storyline is extremely human and very tangible. I cry too, but when from "Giselle" ( :wink: i know, it's "Swan Lake") i do it because, with some ballerinas, i throw myself into the story until i can feel the pain of a real sick woman being laughed at and unable to cope with reality to the point of madness and death. I've seen real women out there getting their life as destroyed and misserable as her, and believe it or not, i do find myself thinking on how people now in plenty XXI Century , way far from the times and lands of swan-maidens and willis, still fall insanely in love to the point of ruining their lives, and sometimes even commiting suicide...

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I want to remind you that initially it wasn't pas de deux, but pas de trois with Benno, Siegfrid, Odette and bunch of hunters along swans. So it wasn't so much intimacy as we have it now. I see this adagio as Odette's continued speach from the previous mime scene, she is still sharing her grief and Siegfrid here is passive listener, who just mirroring her emotions.

Acting should never be judged by facial expression, specially in ballet, where the whole body have to transfer movements of dancer's emotions.

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I don't care as long as the dancing is beautiful and these artists can create some sort of illusion I can be pulled into for a few hours. For me it is 99% about beauty and form and how the human body can be a means of communication without words.

I can't watch a ballet as Swan Lake or Giselle without a deep interpretation.It gets really boring.It becomes flat and I'd fall asleep.I don't care if the dancer is gifted,has a good quality of movement,if he/she has no good acting skills..If it were only aestethics to count it would have been a sport like Gymnatics.Instead it's an art.And art is mainly expression of the self and not bare form.And then if there's a story behind it must be played properly or it becomes surreal and has no reason for existing.Imagine Kitri being melancholic as a Swan and a Giselle act 2 happy and vamp as Kitri.Who could appreciate that?It has no coherence at all.

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There has been lots to think about -- and chew on -- in this thread.

Even though both Siegfried and Odette are falling in love, [ .... ] Shouldn't they inhabit the same general emotional zone?
"Falling in love" takes different forms with different people. Intensity does not always mean compatibility. For Odette, love involves finding someone with whom, finally, she can share her her history of loss, betrayal, and despair, and her and the sudden, surprising realization that she has found someone who can help her. The story of the ballet can be seen as one in which Siegfried slowly gives up his own, quite different, concept of self-gratification and joins Odette in hers. (The Odile scene is back-slliding for Siegfried.) Shared suicide does seem the only way out for such lovers.
At the risk of blaming Balanchine for everything, I wonder how much his dislike of acting contributed to this.
I recall many early performances of Balanchine's shortened Swan Lake. The main mood his early casts seemed to be aiming at was something like a highly emotional trance. This seemed to be the case no matter who was dancing the roles. (Some of the males, however, were a bit more wooden than the others.) This approach was tremendously affecting, and fit the music so welll that it amounted to a kind of "acting." I wonder what the dancers were told to do. Is there any historical evidence of how Balanchine wanted them to approach their roles?
I want to remind you that initially it wasn't pas de deux, but pas de trois with Benno, Siegfrid, Odette and bunch of hunters along swans. So it wasn't so much intimacy as we have it now. I see this adagio as Odette's continued speach from the previous mime scene, she is still sharing her grief and Siegfrid here is passive listener, who just mirroring her emotions.
This may be the most plausible explanation of all. However, I find Siegfried to be discovering a new kind of empathy as he responds to Odette and chooses to share her fate. This goes beyond "passive" into something deeper.
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What bart wrote --

However, I find Siegfried to be discovering a new kind of empathy as he responds to Odette and chooses to share her fate. This goes beyond "passive" into something deeper.
is very important. It IS more than a love story. There was, at least originally, the idea that Siegfried was looking for something that his life was missing -- a spiritual fulfillment. Not love, not God, but something larger than himself, something beyond himself, and he found that in Odette. (That's why, for me, the melancholy solo added to the end of Act I is appropriate.)

And thank you, Andrei, for your comments, and for reminding us that the White Swan pas de deux was originally a pas d'action for three, plus huntsmen and swans. It would have looked quite different a hundred years ago. (I'm a charter member of the Bring Back Benno movement, although it's not a popular one, I fear.)

Hans, yes, KAB has an acting for dancers class now. (I think a large part of the problem for young dancers and dramatic dance is not only the rushed, inadequate rehearsals, but the fact that they have no models. If they saw it every day, they'd naturally learn how to fill a character on stage.)

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I want to remind you that initially it wasn't pas de deux, but pas de trois with Benno, Siegfrid, Odette and bunch of hunters along swans. So it wasn't so much intimacy as we have it now. I see this adagio as Odette's continued speach from the previous mime scene, she is still sharing her grief and Siegfrid here is passive listener, who just mirroring her emotions.

I think that the change from a Pas de Trois, especially one in which the Siegfried was the less involved partner and there is another mortal man to witness the scene, to a Pas de Deux, witnessed only by other imprisoned souls, changes the dynamic drastically, as well as the interpretation. There is not the same decorum, and little place for Siegfried to stop and listen, unlike when Benno is partnering Odette and that's his primary "job."

At the risk of blaming Balanchine for everything, I wonder how much his dislike of acting contributed to this.
I recall many early performances of Balanchine's shortened Swan Lake. The main mood his early casts seemed to be aiming at was something like a highly emotional trance. This seemed to be the case no matter who was dancing the roles. (Some of the males, however, were a bit more wooden than the others.)

Act II as a stand-alone also changes the dynamic: there's no need for a dramatic arc between the acts; it's all distilled. I think the Siegfried's mood/approach at entrance has both the added pressure to establish the character more potently and immediately, but also the added freedom from consistency.

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I think that the change from a Pas de Trois, especially one in which the Siegfried was the less involved partner and there is another mortal man to witness the scene, to a Pas de Deux, witnessed only by other imprisoned souls, changes the dynamic drastically, as well as the interpretation. There is not the same decorum, and little place for Siegfried to stop and listen, unlike when Benno is partnering Odette and that's his primary "job."

I agree, Helene.

Can anyone describe this older version in detail -- or direct us to a dvd or (better!) YouTube clip so that we can see what it actually looked like?

I recall seeing this version once or possibly twice, but my memory is in its "I can't remember where or when" mode. Could it have been one of the early Bolshoi visits to the Met? I seem to remember getting mixed signals from Benno. I can visualize Benno promenading Odette while Siegfried reacted (downstage right). At a certain point, Benno seemed to wander off -- to rejoin the hunt? or just because he couldn't take the scarey wierdness of it all?

Is this an accurate memory? Is it the original 19th century version? Or was there a gradual decrease, from production to production, in the time allotted to Benno on stage and the importance of his being there?

Act II as a stand-alone also changes the dynamic: there's no need for a dramatic arc between the acts; it's all distilled. I think the Siegfried's mood/approach at entrance has both the added pressure to establish the character more potently and immediately, but also the added freedom from consistency.
Good point. There's also the possibility that a number of Balanchine's early dancers have learned traditional interpretations of Siegfried at Ballet Theater or elsewhere, and brought some of that to their NYCB performances???
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