Black swan, owl-shaped spirit, or snaky seductress?
02 Jul 2013
For such a dramatic art form, classical ballet is remarkably short on villains – particularly female ones. Bar a couple of witches, a wili and a stepmother, the villainess gets to shine in a sparse handful of ballets: The Sleeping Beauty has the vengeful fairy Carabosse (sometimes played by a man), who memorably plucks hair from the scalp of an unfortunate courtier; La Bayadére has Gamzatti, the scheming vamp who plants a snake in her rival’s fruit basket. But the undoubted queen of ballet badness is Odile, the black-mirror replica of the heroine Odette in Swan Lake. Glittering darkly, tempting the Prince away from his true-love vow in a thrilling pas de deux, Odile steals the show every time.
She lives firmly in the modern imagination as the Black Swan, but she started life as a mere enchantress. In the character list for Swan Lake’s initial 1877 production Odile appears only as von Rothbart’s daughter, “the exact replica of Odette”. In the 1895 reworking of the ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov she is again “the replica of Odette”. Nothing is said about swans or even blackness. True, in the 1895 version Odile wore a dark dress, but Ponomarayev’s costume drawings for this production show a flashy gown adorned with an immense star burst of paler colour on the bodice and paler rays almost entirely covering the skirt, giving a rainbow effect; in Margaret Fleming-Makarian’s book Symbolism in Nineteenth Century Ballet (2012), the colours are described as “pale pink, blue and yellow”. Fleming-Makarian also points out her headdress, “a yellow band of twin serpents”. Odile’s incarnation as the black swan, a literal negative image of Odette, seems to be a recent innovation; scholars trace the wearing of the black tutu to a performance of the ballroom act of Swan Lake, given under the title “The Magic Swan”, toured by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the early 1940s. As late as 1947, in a review for Ballet magazine, the English critic Cyril W Beaumont describes Odile as wearing “a dark green tutu decorated with pale green sequins which gives her a sinister snake-like effect” (shades of the Ponomarayev headdress!).
The pairing of a white swan with a wicked snake may have a deeper origin than the serpentine curl of the swan’s neck. In the Russian folktale “Sweet Mikailo Ivanovich the Rover”, which has not a few parallels with the story of Swan Lake, Mikhailo’s beloved of the “sugar mouth”, the white swan Marya, dies and is buried; underground, she turns into her other incarnation, the dragon (or serpent) of the Underworld, and lies in wait to kill him. Mikailo must cut her into bits, clean her body of serpents, and sprinkle her with holy water before they can be married. Against seemingly steep odds, they live happily ever after.
Von Rothbart, in many versions of Swan Lake, is a genie who takes the form of an owl. In his Stories of the Ballets (1937, revised 1949), Beaumont describes the sorcerer as entering the ballroom dressed to “represent a black swan”, and refers to him as the Knight of the Black Swan. (This recalls Erik Bruhn’s 1967 version of Swan Lake; Bruhn, who had an unhappy relationship with his mother, transforms the ballroom von Rothbart into a baleful Black Queen, who faces off with Siegfried’s mother as if on a chess board.) However, in his 1952 book The Ballet called “Swan Lake”, Beaumont makes no mention of Odile as a swan, black or otherwise. Rather, he suggests that “daughter” is “a more convenient figure of speech for what is clearly a familiar spirit.” As evidence for this theory, he mentions an account of an 1899 production of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky, in which Odile, when her deception is over, turns into an owl. At a later point, Beaumont says that Odile “normally” wears “a skirt of some colour so that it differs from the white costume worn by Odette … the coiffure is more glamorous and the features made up to suggest hardness and brilliance. In short, Odile is depicted as a rather obvious adventuress.”
Swan, owl or glamourpuss, Odile, through the many 20th– and 21st-century versions of Swan Lake, can generally be relied upon to show up. Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is almost unique in that it does away with her altogether. However, the Snake of the Underworld is not buried that easily. Murphy and his creative team allow her to surface subtly in the characters of both Odette and her nemesis, the Baroness von Rothbart.
That Odette and the Baroness, rivals for the Prince’s love, can be seen as somehow paired is set up right at the start of the ballet, in the Prologue. Odette, doubting the Prince’s love, roams the Palace restlessly on the night before her marriage. Hearing his step, she conceals herself in a curtain. The silky black drapery then seductively reveals a woman’s form, clinging tight to her breast and hips, which the Prince caresses. The curtain is thrust aside – to reveal the Baroness, dressed for the boudoir in a fetching negligee.
This intriguing play between Odette and her dark sister Odile, in both their traditional and Murphy forms, weaves throughout the ballet. The Baroness both embodies the Rothbart role – the schemer, the evil one, the engine of Odette’s tragedy – and that of his daughter Odile. She appears most obviously Black Swan-ish at the beginning of the Act III ballroom scene, where, dressed in darkly sparkling brocades, she triumphantly caresses the Prince, holding him in thrall to her charms. Murphy’s choreography for the Baroness is persistently serpentine; she is always twining herself around Siegfried, her arms curling around his neck and head to draw him into the private circle of their bodies.
When the Prince visits Odette in her asylum room, she is sent into a frenzy by the sight of the Baroness at the tall windows. Impatiently checking her watch, dressed in black furs, the Baroness is like an insouciant, negative-image version of the distraught swan queen that beats at the windows of the ballroom in the traditional Swan Lake, trying to prevent her lover’s betrayal. The Prince, in this version, goes to join the Baroness, and Odette clings helplessly to the window from the inside.
However, it is Odette, in chiffon-winged white, who triumphs in Murphy’s ball scene (sort of – she gets the guy, but loses her mind), and Odette who gets to whip out fouéttes to the music for Odile’s spectacular Act III variation. Murphy, following what scholars believe to be the original order of the score, moves this music to Act I, and uses it as the soundtrack to Odette’s public breakdown. As she defiantly spins, her demure white lace gown reveals a black underskirt – the dark menace of her madness, which will finally kill her. (A decade later, this figuring of Odette’s dark side not as a doppelganger but as a cracked aspect of her psychology resurfaces in the Darren Aranofsky film Black Swan.)
This symbology is fully developed in the tragic fourth act, where Odette, her fragile mind snapped, returns to the swan fantasies of her Act II asylum hallucinations. This time she’s not coming back, and she and all her swans wear black costumes. Her madness, her dark side, has triumphed; but as she drowns herself, in a spectacular coup de theatre, black gives way to white, torment to peace. Perhaps this white swan, in the Underworld beneath the frozen lake, can be free of all wicked snakes.