Good Swan, Bad Swan : Dancing Swan Lake
Why is Swan Lake still being danced more than 100 years after it was created ? What is its appeal for audiences and for dancers of today ?
These are some of the questions that Tamara Rojo, Principal dancer and Artisitc Director of English National Ballet, attempts to answer during this programme, which is part of the BBC Two & Four Short Ballet Season. Rojo presents the programme as well as showcasing her ballet technique.
Had this programme been made during Rojo’s time as a Principal dancer at The Royal Ballet, the footage would have been of her dancing their production alongside Carlos Acosta, with its intelligently nuanced mime & tragedy. Rojo is no longer with the company, having taken a position as Artistic Director of English National Ballet, and so we see Derek Deane’s in-the-round production footage, with its happy ending and magnificent 60 Swans, and Rojo dancing with Matthew Golding and Vadim Muntagirov, both of whom are now dancing with The Royal Ballet, Rojo’s old company.
Backstage with Tamara Rojo
We are invited to see Rojo sitting in her fairly stark dressing room (the rigours of touring do not promote cosy dressing rooms), looking into the mirror and preparing her base make-up. She says that what she’s actually doing is erasing a bit of herself with the make-up and changing into another person, as she says,”to see what comes out today.”
One of the main challenges of Swan Lake is the dual role of Odette/Odile for the Principal dancer – the White Swan and the Black Swan. Portraying two different characters in one night, which Rojo likens to playing Juliet and Macbeth, and then back to Juliet, in one performance, is not an easy ask, and dancers can spend their whole career adding layers to their interpretation of this one role. Derek Deane comments that finding a dancer who understands the duality of the role is rare.
Odette, The White Swan, is innocent, pure and honest, whereas Odile, as the Black Swan, is manipulative, dishonest and erotic. It’s sharp, dark shadowy corners against a gently beguiling beauty.
Swan Lake over the years
Discussing the history of Swan Lake, Rojo says that for a ballet that defines the genre, nothing about it is actually defined. No-one knows who wrote the story, Tchaikovsky’s handwritten score is lost and the choreography has been passed down verbally.
There are technical challenges for anyone cast in Swan Lake – the famous Italian party trick that is the 32 fouettes for Odile, in which Rojo has always excelled. Indeed, she positively revels in all of the Black Swan’s choreography, dancing with Vadim Muntagirov to demonstrate the meaning behind each step and how it feels for her to dance the role. It suits her personality, and she finds it harder to portray Odette, who she wishes would fight for what she wants. As Odile’s self-assurance becomes ever more focused on her goal of tricking the Prince into thinking that she is Odette, Rojo too can’t help admiring those who are good at what they do; whether or not their intentions are honourable. Everyone loves a winner, right ?
Rojo says that her nerves have changed with age, and that she realises that the more she practices, the less nervous she feels. The Prince doesn’t get away lightly in the emotional stakes; Deane says that by the end of his first solo you should feel “as miserable as he does”, trapped as he is in a stifling court life, unable to be himself.
Passing on Swan Lake
Rojo spends time coaching ENB’s dancers, Laurretta Summerscales and Arionel Vargas, explaining the feeling behind each step and why it’s relevant today, and to these two dancers, as they draw on their experiences to create their own interpretation and a new one for today.
Rojo and Alina Cojocaru (now with ENB) review footage of Swan Lake danced by Galina Ulanova in 1956 and Natalia Makarova in 1979, to see their interpretations and how they have evolved and influenced their own performances.
Good Swan, Bad Swan : Dancing Swan Lake is on BBC Four on March 9th