Of Black Swans, Brunhilde and Shamanism

Very recently the Mariensky Ballet company came to our town and I rather desperately wanted to go   –  but, alas,  could not.  I ended up going to see the movie, Black Swan, instead and, just to salve my wounded spirit further, rented out from the SML, the video of the Royal Ballet version of Swan Lake (the version with Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell).  I really wanted to see the full danced version as well as this new exposition on the story, dance and the niche culture of dance. This post is about revelations that popped into my head following the viewing juxtaposition of the movie and the filmed stage performance of the entire ballet.

But, before I get to that, to put this in some context, I  feel that a little history might be helpful.  Years ago, when I was still dancing, I went to see the Canadian National Ballet version (before James Kudelka’s, its was Erik Bruhn’s).  I had tickets for the Wednesday and the Friday.  Wednesday’s performance was dreadful – it appeared that there had been a spat between the lead ballerina and her prince, no body was “in to it” and the ballet looked dated and forlorn.  Those arm flapping women looked frankly silly and I remember sinking down in my seat for empathic embarrassment – time to retire it, I thought, retire it for good.    For whatever reason (because I love ballet and I love Swan Lake), I did go back on the Friday. The difference could not have been greater. It was electric, its was deeply moving, deeply mythic – and it was the same cast as had been dancing on the Wednesday: same ballet, same music, same choreography, same costumes, same set, same orchestra, same dancers – exactly the same dancers – but this time, the timeless, the immortal shimmered and – danced – that night on that stage.  I have never forgotten – the experience or the lesson.  “Into-it-ness” seemed to be the magic elixir that transformed a travesty into that almost indefinable thing, we might have called it “transcendent” but its essence was “immanential devotion”.

Fast forward.  I was mesmerized by Black Swan.  The part where she is (in her mind?) being transformed into a Black Swan with every fouettee she does was an extremely powerful set of images.  I understand the logic of the story, the merging of the death of the White Swan and the death of the dancer seeking an unattainable perfection.  But I had a sudden flash of an alternative ending – a follow through on the strong Shamanic implicit in the transformation scene.  What if, what if, what if – at the very moment when the White Swan seeks death, out comes a Grey Swan who explains, via dance, that the split is the creature of civilization and that it is her right and duty to merge intention (“good”/white?) with power (“bad”/black?, ostensibly), thus freeing herself, the other maidens and the prince from the effects of THAT evil spell.

For not only do we have an entrenched discourse on that pernicious Manichaean  thread in Western society, splitting light from dark, good from evil, white from black, virgin from slut, passive from active – it is also the split between “civilization” and the wild – which is precisely why Swan Lake is about “swans” and hunters (from the “court”) – and magic spells.  Maybe its a story garbled by the Christian interregnum, maybe there are other layers to this story that we ought to explore.

Enter the Royal Ballet version.  The narrator informs us that the story of the “princess turned into a swan by an evil spell” was not an original story but was known in some form or other from India to Ireland, from Greece to Scandinavia.  Its easier to see the “mythic bones” in the Royal version than in Bruhn’s, which tended to be mythic in another sense – oedipal, given that he substituted the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart (“Shining Anger”) into an evil Dowager Queen Sorceress.  One clue in decoding the story resides in the names of the White Swan, Odette, and the Black Swan, Odile.  Look up the suffixes: ette is a diminutive, meaning “little one”, ‘ile” is a relative, meaning partaking of – like facILE, or tactILE: but what are they a little bit of??? Od – with the long “O” strongly suggests Odin/Othin – whose Valkyries were often represented as being in swan form. We get a further clue when we know that the name of the “prince” is Siegfried and the time and place are “somewhere in Germany, sometime in the past” – we are, in fact, looking at a variation on the story of Brunhilde and Siegfried.  Indeed, Tchaikovsky wrote the score in the latter half of the 19th century within the same ambit as Wagner and as part of the “romantic” movement interested in the “sublime” – that uncanny relationship between “nature”, “the divine”  – and us.

So, what is that relationship?  Clearly we have been under the spell of delusion in which we really believed that we could “tame” the energies of nature and put them to our own purposes.  I suggest that one reason that Swan Lake continues to thrill – when its acolytes are “into it”  – is because we are again taken into the world of  first battles (the mythic, itself) between the wild and civilization, a world in which our ambivalence expresses itself through our shifting allegiances within the story.  But, it is a story that changes in the telling as we understand the deeper issues at stake.  The Shaman’s power to transform, must stay within the bounds of respect for our tenuous relationship with the wild – but within the bounds of respect, it has the potential to unite intention and power – we need not be divided within ourselves or alienated from the natural world.


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