At what point does the ‘reimagining’ of a classic story so change the original that it’s no longer the same story, despite any superficial similarity? And if it’s no longer the same story, must the ‘reimagined’ production still be compared with, and held to the same standard as, the original?
Jerry Hochman muses on this and more as he describes and considers Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “LAC (after ‘Swan Lake’)”, recently seen in New York and shortly to open in London.
I thought of the above questions as I watched the New York premiere of Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “LAC (after ‘Swan Lake’)” at City Center earlier this month, danced by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, of which Mr. Maillot is Artistic Director. The parenthetical, incidentally, appears as part of its title in both New York and London, but not at home – a point I will return to.
In response to my first question, I conclude that his creation relates a new version of the classic story that significantly changes, confuses, and diminishes the impact of the basic story. But “LAC” (as I will call it) deserves to be evaluated on its own merits. After viewing the work, and replaying it in my mind, I see it as a significant but flawed piece that both energizes the theater with its extraordinary stage vitality and has moments of brilliance. Ultimately, in its audacity, “LAC” has a kinship as much to Matthew Bourne’s “The Sleeping Beauty”, which had its New York premier at City Center last fall, as to any ‘standard’ version of “Swan Lake” that plays with the setting or modifies the Petipa/Ivanov choreography (for example, Peter Martins’ version for New York City Ballet or Christopher Wheeldon’s masterful reimagining for Pennsylvania Ballet), but it’s less successful than the Bourne piece because Maillot attempts not so much to ‘explain’ or ‘update’ the story, but rather changes it into something more complex, and more opaque.
A fair evaluation of “LAC”, as well as Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, requires a brief summary of the company’s history. The current Monte-Carlo company was founded in 1985. Its first directors were former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Ghislaine Thesmar and première danseur Pierre Lacotte. Mr. Maillot, who has creative roots in both classical and contemporary ballet, was appointed the company’s director in 1993.
The City Center program note also relates that Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which began performing in Paris in 1909, used Monte Carlo as a ‘creative workshop’ for two decades. Even though Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo does not specifically claim a direct connection to Diaghilev, this reference is there for a reason. We know also that upon Diaghilev’s death and the succession that followed, certain members of his Ballets Russes reassembled as the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1932 under the leadership of former Tsarist officer turned impresario, Colonel Wassily de Basil, and Artistic Director of the Théâtre de Monte Carlo, René Blum. While there are clearly close links, this company should not be confused with others with similar names, notably the almost identically named Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, founded in 1938 by Blum and Leonid Massine following disputes between Blum and de Basil.
One of the Diaghilev company alumni who found a temporary home with Blum and de Basil’s Les Ballets Russes and who also had links with Blum’s later company, was George Balanchine, who subsequently, with Lincoln Kirstein, founded the School of American Ballet in New York. Indeed, many dancers with the company went on to teach students in New York, and at SAB. So even though Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo has no direct relationship with Blum and de Basil’s ensembles, in some respects, even if only in dreams, it is not only a contemporary ballet company, but an heir to Diaghilev, with a ‘dotted line’ relationship with Balanchine. In that sense, seeing things differently, and taking risks, would seem to be embedded in the company’s genetic material, and is a factor to consider when evaluating one of the company’s original productions.
Recognizing Mr. Maillot’s choreographic style as not just a ‘style,’ but in many ways a different ballet language, is also an essential factor to consider. In my review of his “Romeo et Juliette,” presented at City Center last year by Pacific Northwest Ballet, I described his choreographic style, to the extent there is one, to be a synthesis of a multitude of styles that looks both lyrical and balletic, and angular and contemporary, at virtually the same time. In its description, the company says essentially the same thing: “Neither classical nor contemporary, not even between the two, Mr. Maillot refuses to adhere to one style and designs dance like a dialogue, where tradition[al] on pointes [sic] and the avant-garde are no longer mutually exclusive.”
With this in mind, I see the flaws in “LAC” to be a consequence of changes imposed on the ‘standard’ story more than any choreographic failing.
To say that there’s a ‘standard’ story of “Swan Lake” is somewhat misleading. Since the ballet’s premiere with the predecessor of the Bolshoi Ballet in 1877, details of the essential story, as well as its choreography, have changed to one extent or another with different productions. Indeed, the ballet itself was molded from several different possible literary sources (the exact source is not certain). But with the revised production mounted by the Imperial Ballet (Mariinsky) in 1895, choreographed by Marius Petipa (Acts I and III) and Lev Ivanov (Acts II and IV), the basic story, as modified by Tchaikovsky’s younger brother Modest, was set. And although details might change in subsequent productions (Is Odile von Rothbart’s daughter? Is von Rothbart one person? Do Odette and Prince Siegfried, or one of them, die at the end? Are the Act III variations danced in one order or another? Does the story take place on a central European lake, or a mountaintop aerie, or in a Parisian ballet school?), these are all variations within the essential story framework.
The one constant is that that this is a ‘pure’ story of good vs. evil. An evil sorcerer has changed a princess into a swan, the White Swan being the queen of all swans that the sorcerer has so transformed. A prince is ordered to marry by his mother, but he doesn’t want to and goes hunting, and finds a swan/woman, the White Swan, named Odette, to whom he swears his love and by which the sorcerer von Rothbart’s spell might be broken. The sorcerer subsequently tricks the Prince by offering a substitute for her, a Black Swan, named Odile. The Prince is seduced and tricked and swears his love for the wrong swan/woman. Then the story resolves. I must add that the significance of the Queen, and her relationship to her son and others, is potential fodder for scholarly comment, but although it’s an interesting aside, it doesn’t change the basic story. Similarly, whether Odette and Odile represent two sides of a woman, or even sisters or the same woman, may prompt psychological evaluations, but in versions of the story that I’ve seen are not found in it per se.
In “LAC,” there are several modifications to the order of the story and the location. But there’s also a new wrinkle added; one that begets other wrinkles, and suddenly the story isn’t so simple. Mr. Maillot appears to have recognized this, by calling the piece “LAC”, a completely new – though related – title. For both the New York and London engagements, the title has been referenced as “LAC (after ‘Swan Lake’)”. Maybe that says something about the company’s perceptions of local audiences, but it echoes an oft-quoted comment reputed to have been by Balanchine: “Whatever you choreograph, call it “Swan Lake” and people will come.”
For his libretto, Mr. Maillot relied upon Jean Rouaud, a contemporary French writer, well-known in Europe, to give the story a ‘new drama’. Together with Mr. Maillot, he has crafted a changed story, one that, according to the program notes, “resonates with our own questioning,” that may adhere to the essential components of the original, but presents it in a way that overwhelms it and undermines its essential thematic purity. There is still a battle between perceived good and evil in the characters of the White Swan and Black Swan (who are otherwise unnamed). And there’s still a Prince (also unnamed), although he’s somewhat milquetoasty; a Queen, who has a pivotal thematic role; and a controlling, evil sorcerer/villain – except here ‘he’ is a ‘she’ called ‘Her Majesty the Night’ (or ‘Her Majesty of the Night’, depending on which program note one reads) rather than ‘von Rothbart’; and Benno, the Prince’s friend, here called ‘The Confidant’. And there are still swans and hunters, as well as prospective mates for the Prince, called ‘Pretenders’.
But now there’s a backstory. This Prince has a father, the King. That might have been a benevolent change – I often wondered why the Prince’s father, presumably the King, was absent in most standard versions of the story. As an aside, Sir Peter Wright’s well-known production for Birmingham Royal Ballet solves this problem by starting with the funeral procession of the King, a move that gives a solid narrative foundation for the melancholic mood of his Prince in Act I. In this version, the Queen indicates in no uncertain terms that, sorrowful or not, it’s time to find a bride.
But if you create a living King, as Maillot does in “LAC”, unless he’s simply a stick-figure consort, you’ve got to give him something to do or some reason for being. In Mr. Rouaud’s revision, prior to (or during – it’s not clear) his marriage to the Queen, this King had a relationship with Her Majesty the Night (who for brevity I’ll just call ‘Night’) and, the program notes keep insisting, may or may not have been the father of her child, the Black Swan. This is a nasty little ‘did he or didn’t he’ wrinkle. And it spawns other nasty little wrinkles – like whether the Queen will seek, and get revenge.
There’s also a flashback. When the ballet begins, the curtain opens onto an austere set consisting of three thrones. The Prince sulks on his; the Queen and King look angry. Then, in a projected ‘silent movie’, we see a boy, presumably the child Prince, sitting with his parents (their faces concealed within helmets) at a picnic, interacting with this sweet little girl in a white dress. The boy Prince knows immediately that he will love this girl forever. Birds sing and flowers bloom – at least in the audience’s imagination. The two also play with a trunk filled with costume paraphernalia, including a feathered sleeve and a white hooked-nose mask, which is a convenient way for the Prince to remember the little girl in white if he were to see her years later looking like a swan.
But then the happy picnic is spoiled. Accompanied by two sidekick/thugs, called the ‘Archangels’ (or ‘Archangels of Darkness’, depending on the program note), Night interrupts the picnic, bringing with her a somewhat malevolent looking little girl dressed in black. Their presence destabilizes the relationship between the King and Queen, presumably because the Queen knows of his dalliance and that the girl in black is Night’s daughter, and that her husband is, or may be, the father. Night then feverishly attempts to get the boy Prince to dump the little girl in white and hook up with the little girl in black, but he remains loyal. For reasons that are unclear – speculation provides many alternative rationales, or maybe she’s just being bitchy – Night and her stooges then kidnap the sweet little girl in white. And now we have yet another new and nasty little wrinkle: Who is the little girl in white? The libretto never addresses, much less answers, this question. Did she happen to wander upon the picnic? Is she the Queen’s daughter by a prior relationship (which would make her another half-sister to the Prince)? Is she the King and Queen’s daughter (which would make her the Prince’s full sister)? And either scenario would make the Black Swan and the White Swan half-sisters.
So instead of a classic fantasy story of good vs. evil with an evil sorcerer capturing a beautiful princess and transforming her into a swan, in “LAC” we have a convoluted, tangled web inspired by a domestic soap opera – albeit that of a royal ‘modern family’.
After the film/prologue, the ‘live’ ballet begins with a first act that essentially synthesizes Act I of the ‘standard’ Petipa/Ivanov version of “Swan Lake” (the Prince’s ‘birthday celebration’) with bits and pieces of Act III (the ball at the castle to find a mate for the Prince), as well as parts of Act II and Act IV (even though as yet there’s no White Swan). The story may have been butchered, but that’s nothing compared to what was done to the Tchaikovsky score, by the way. To get him to stop sulking about the lost little girl in white – to “make a man of him” (as the program put it bluntly) – the King challenges his son, humiliates him, and tries to convince him to be more like his boisterous friends. The Prince, something of a momma’s boy, doesn’t really like the idea, but he’s a quick study, and when a flock of visiting female sex objects happen by to liven things up, he joins the mutual lust and aggression and they all party like it’s 2099. The Prince is depressed, but he’s not that depressed.
The King (with or without the Queen’s agreement, it’s not clear) subsequently orders the aroused Prince to select a mate from among a number of ‘suitors’, the Pretenders, each of whom has a defining attitude: the ‘Conceited Woman’ (also called the ‘Vain’ one in a program insert); the ‘Indifferent’ one (also called the ‘False Indifferent’ one); a pair of ‘Libertines’; and the ‘Insatiable’ one (also called the ‘Voracious’ one). To the Queen, none of them is suitable for her son. Not even the Libertines, which might have proved an interesting pairing – or tripling. Then Night and her Archangels crash the party, which arouses the King but brings consternation to the Queen. Why the Archangels are there is a good question. Except to the extent they make convenient porteurs for Night, they have no particular function except to fill stage space (not unlike Friar Laurence’s Acolytes in “Romeo et Juliette”).
As she did at the ‘picnic’, Night brings her now grown and hotter than Hades ‘Black Swan’ daughter (wearing a black mini-wrap that looked like an oversized lace doily with strategically placed openings revealing the ‘nude’ colored leotard underneath) with her to ramp up the sexual temperature. The Prince, initially smitten, is all over her like a cheap leotard. But then, after more hyperactive dancing and warnings from the Confidant, and as a still from the film flashback is projected against the back of the stage (equivalent to the ‘standard’ Act III ‘viewing’ of Odette that Siegfried sees after pledging his love to Odile), he remembers the little girl in white and rejects Night’s daughter as well as the not so great Pretenders.
That’s Act I.
Only after this, in Act II, which roughly, very roughly, tracks Act II of the original, does the Prince appear in a forest of sorts, in front of a stone cave of sorts, and meets his long lost little girl in white, who is now a White Swan. Quite how and why the Prince arrives at this forest encounter is not stated. Their love rekindled, the White Swan briefly morphs into the adult little girl in white. But Night and the Archangels (sounds like a punk rock band), along with her daughter, again intervene and attempt to seduce the Prince. But he remains committed to the adult swan/woman in white (even though, for all the libretto knows, she might be his sister or half-sister), and somehow it’s understood that his love will break Night’s spell. But who are these other swan/birds (collectively called The Chimera for no discernable reason), who don’t look at all like the White Swan? And if Night kidnapped the little girl in white for some reason relating to favoring her own daughter, maybe or maybe not by the King, how and why did she acquire these other birds? Or maybe the Chimera are just native waterfowl who happen to take direction from Night.
Finally, in Act III, which is the ball to celebrate the Prince’s wedding, Night switches the two swan-women, and the Prince unknowingly marries Night’s daughter – who, remember, may be his half-sister. He doesn’t know that, but the Queen does. The White Swan returns from wherever Night hid her, and, distraught, runs, or flies, away. Triumphant, Night runs off with the King in pursuit, abandoning her, or their, daughter. The anguished Queen takes over and somehow, Night’s daughter dies, although whether by her own hand, or wing, or the Queen’s, isn’t clear. Returning to the forest, the distraught White Swan and Prince collapse and die. Her plans foiled and her daughter dead, Night shrieks in villainous frustration. And then n(N)ight falls – in the form of a giant black sheet that descends over the bodies of the Prince and the White Swan – and maybe Night too, but by that time she might have been on the stage floor and, well, black and black tend to blend together. The black sheet is then lifted, and the characters have disappeared. It was all a fantasy.
Viewing the libretto as charitably as possible, the changes made to the original story, the characters that are neither clearly identified nor explained, and the insinuations about possible relationships that are never resolved, only muddy the “LAC” waters. And yet, on its own and without comparison to any version more closely resembling the ‘standard’ story, the ballet somehow works.
It takes a while for the positive aspects of Mr. Maillot’s accomplishment to sink in. On first impression, because the story is so strange, incoherent, and chaotic, the piece as a work of ballet art looks strange, incoherent and chaotic, although the unusual and colorful costumes by Philippe Guillotel enliven the production’s appearance immensely. But as a representation of the mutated story, the choreography isn’t inappropriate, and it’s not the hodgepodge of movement that it may initially appear to be. Hands and arms fly all over the place (at one point the men all move like Tevye when he wished he were a rich man – and, at another, the prince’s friends ‘dance’ like the giant rats in Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker”), but there’s a consistency to it. It’s just a different language. The more graphic sexual contact is startling but not inappropriate in context (and this is Monte-Carlo, after all), and the dances for the Pretenders are small gems of choreographic caricature. Caricature dances frequently are choreographic cheap shots, but here they make sense. Also, I could never comprehend how, in most productions of the ‘standard’ version, the Prince would summarily reject a bevy of beautiful princesses. It’s taken on faith, because that’s how the story works. But here, when the Prince rejects the Pretenders, beautiful though they may be, it’s understandable because despite their surface attractiveness, their personalities are repellant. More significantly, what Mr. Maillot does to the ‘standard’ Act III Spanish dance is a brilliant reimagining. It’s no longer a ‘Spanish dance’ per se, but a stage-spanning dance of frenzy and seduction – and it alone is worth the price of admission.
Mr. Maillot’s transformation of what might correspond to the ‘white acts’ is particularly interesting. While not ‘Petipa/Ivanov’ (the ballet is ‘after’ “Swan Lake,” not ‘after’ Petipa/Ivanov), his swans (or whatever species of bird they may be) do move sort of like birds – just not idealized birds, and in distinctive patterns – just not any distinctive patterns that look familiar. I laughed out loud as I saw the weird-looking avians pose with their ‘tails’ pushed up into the air. It’s not beautiful to look at, but isn’t that just how swans look when they glide on water, underneath all that white fluff?
And his duets for the White Swan and the Prince, particularly in contrast with everything else in the piece, are delightful. Converting the story to one that relies, in part, upon the rekindling of youthful puppy love enables a more complex choreographic relationship than just ‘pathos’, ‘attraction, and ‘swearing eternal love’ danced at a snail’s, or swan’s, pace. The last time these characters saw each other they were children. When they reunite and recognize each other, it’s appropriate that they first act like giddy children, and then that their love matures. Mr. Maillot’s choreography allows us to see all that: these initial duets are at once playful, touching, and exciting.
But whatever feelings one has about the story or the choreography, the Ballets de Monte-Carlo dancers deserve praise for their abundant energy and enthusiasm, and for executing Mr. Maillot’s feverish movement quality as it was intended to be. No dancer just stands around to populate the stage or poses as part of a frame.
At City Center on March 14th, Anja Behrend was a lovely, innocent, and forlorn White Swan, and her appearance on stage was always a breath of fresh air. As her counterpart, April Ball was appropriately vicious, but also seductive and sexy – essential qualities for a Black Swan. I found the character of the Confidant to be annoying and overbearing, always more ‘up’ than is humanly possible, but Jeroen Verbruggen danced it with enough energy to power New York. He quite overshadowed Stephan Bourgond’s Prince, although the latter did give sufficient color and texture to the character that has to display the greatest range of emotions and style: the bullied son, the fun-loving but anguished royal young man, the devoted and warm-hearted companion, and the victim of Night’s bait and switch.
As Her Majesty of the Night, Maude Sabourin was vigorously malevolent and serpentine. The Pretenders (Liisa Hamalainen as Conceited/Vain, Noelani Pantastico as False/Indifferent, Anjara Ballesteros and Anne-Laure Seillan as the Libertines, and Gaelle Riou as Voracious/Insatiable) each did quite well with choreography that captures their characters’ cartoonish emotional qualities. And as the King and Queen, Alvaro Prieto and Mimoza Koike effectively transmitted larger than life personalities. Mr. Prieto’s King was a macho bully and an aggressive husband, but one easily manipulated by Night; and Ms. Koike’s Queen was a Graham-esque anguished, seething soul.
I don’t like having mixed reactions to a ballet, but sometimes that’s unavoidable. Mr. Maillot’s “LAC” is a difficult piece to like because it’s so different, and because the changed story confuses and diminishes the impact of the original. But the choreography fits, and the dancing was extraordinarily good. Perhaps “LAC” will eventually be seen as a worthy alternative view of “Swan Lake” – something as audacious and controversial as a new Diaghilev production.
Jerry Hochman saw Les Ballet de Monte-Carlo’s performance of “LAC (After Swan Lake)” at City Center, New York City on March 14, 2014.
“Lac (After Swan Lake)” can be seen at the London Coliseum from April 9-12. Booking at www.eno.org, or 020 7835 9300.
CriticalDance will also be carrying reviews from London. Check back in mid-April.