Swan Lake is perhaps the most famous classical ballet in the world. How, then, can a contemporary company seek to reimagine it? The answer, in Coriolis Dance and choreographer/director Natascha Greenwalt’s case, is to rewrite the script completely. With Danses des Cygnes, they did just that, drawing on themes of story, music, and dance from the beloved yet problematic original ballet and twisting them into a story with a very different premise and plot. What emerges from this recreation is a surprisingly positive version of what group belonging could look like, of revising gender roles, and of prioritizing and believing victim narratives.
At first glance, Danses des Cygnes strongly evokes the original Swan Lake ballet. It’s set in a wood, complete with bird calls and the sound of rustling leaves. The music echoes themes of the Tchaikovsky score. The dancers are clearly swans, with dramatic swooping eye makeup and exquisite simple white tunics by Katharine Andrews, Wyatt Orr, and Greenwalt, tailored to float over the dancers’ bodies as they twitched and ruffled their limbs like birds.
But after a condensed version of the Swan Lake overture, which felt a little homegrown and spare played on a single keyboard, everything was different. The romantic melody fades into a contemporary sound score by Maia Durfee and additional composition by Kenjij Bunch and Zola Jesus. Julia Salerno on violin joined Michael Owcharuk on piano, adding texture.
The dancers, four women and two men, were for the majority of the piece clad identically, and danced similar parts. It was refreshing to see a mix of genders among the swans, rather than a swath of cursed women. The partnering further bends ballet gender conventions—women partner each other, men partner each other, a female swan lifts and turns a male swan in an inversion of the typical pas de deux arrangement. It’s tempting to read the casting as a commentary on how gender might not exist in this work, and therefore questions the gender binary in general. But Danses des Cygnes isn’t without gender dynamics, as becomes clear as the plot develops.
While the original Swan Lake portrays a tragic, doomed love between a male courtier and a woman cursed to live as a swan, Danses des Cygnes’ primary conflict is a rape of one of the swans by another. Hannah Simmons danced the only human character, who follows Christin Call’s lovely swan through the woods, fascinated, eventually choosing to become a swan herself. Simmons delicately smears black paint on her own face to echo Call’s makeup, transforming before our eyes. Soon, now fully costumed as a swan, Simmons attempts to evade the advances of Thomas Phelan’s swan, but he overpowers her. Simmons could be portrayed as broken following this violation by a member of the new herd she chose to join. Instead, her flock lifts her up. The swans reappear with shocks of red fabric underneath their creamy tunics. Their ferocious energy propels them across the stage, and they exile the perpetrating swan through a fierce and driving group scene. This threatening character dispatched, the swans move to solidify Simmons’ swan as a full member of the group, thereby validating her experience. The steps echo the original Petipa choreography at points, the arabesques and pirouettes signifying Simmons’ belonging in an iconic group. There’s just cause for collective anger, and they channel it productively to protect one of their own.
In the original Swan Lake, there’s definitely a sense of unity among the swans—seeing dozens of tutu’ed dancers moving in unison is a hallmark of the traditional ballet. But while they’re imposing in their numbers, they’re also desperately sad, controlled as they are by an evil sorcerer. In Danses des Cygnes, by contrast, the swans are affectionate with each other, playing and offering mutual support. The famous dance of the four little swans, where the dancers cross arms, link hands, and traverse the stage with intricate and precise steps, turns into more of a collaboration. Rather than a rigid pas de quatre, various members of the cast twine in and out of the cross-armed configuration, learning by doing.
The last third of the ballet seemed less structured than the rest. Group dance scenes took over, and while the movement was powerful and entrancing, the intricacies of story development got a bit lost. I wished we had a little more time to feel the ending moment and appreciate how the ballet built to its end. Our final glimpse is of a strong swan rising into the air, beautiful and whole. The ending felt abrupt, the stage plunging into darkness as the dancers lifted Simmons above their heads.
But if the ending was abrupt, it was also triumphant. Danses des Cygnes used six strong dancers to invert power structures of the traditional Swan Lake and tell a different story, one that gives women power and community regardless of relationship status and provides consequences for sexual assault. Simmons rises out of her trauma, fully inhabiting her role as a swan. She is a singular being, not defined by her relationship to a man, and also a valued member of a community. The ballet speaks to the individual strength found in a collective, how we may find our truest selves in belonging to something larger.
Danses des Cygnes by Natascha Greenwalt appeared June 6-9, 2019 at Velocity Dance Center. More info HERE.