Reinterpreting works: Swan Lake, Giselle
Swan Lake and Giselle are both part of the great ballets of the choreographic repertoire which, although created in the 19th century, continue to be danced today throughout the world. Choreographers have revamped them, so that they could propose highly-personal interpretations… occasionally very far removed from the original.
This approach owes a great deal to the increasing popularity of contemporary dance, which privileges the idea of danse d’auteur (arthouse dance), advocating particular choreographic language, specific to each artist.
And revisions, no matter how unusual they are, definitely contribute to breathing life into the choreographic repertoire and to enriching it. They are proof that the works in question deal with major themes, which lend themselves to a host of perspectives.
Giselle - Adolphe Adam
Giselleis the tale of a young peasant girl who, betrayed by the man she loves, loses her mind and dies. Like other young girls who have died before their wedding day, Giselle is reincarnated as a Wili, one of these ghostly female spirits who appear at night and take revenge on men.
Created in 1841 by Jean Coralli et Jules Perrot, of the Paris Opera, Giselle is a pantomime ballet. It includes scenes that are not danced but mimed, which aim to develop the narrative line. It is the case for this extract, taken from the classical version and revamped by Yvette Chauviré for the Scala.
Giselle - Mats Ek
In Mats Ek’s revision, there are no pantomime or codified gestures. Giselle attempts, with the awkwardness of despair, to embrace the man that she loves. Her mind falters. She locks herself into repetitive movements and withdraws into a dance of fury.
The Swedish choreographer Mats Ek transposed the action to a more recent and more realistic context. The fantasy world of Jean Coralli et Jules Perrot turns into a study of mental alienation. In this version, Giselle does not die, she is afflicted with madness and committed to a psychiatric institution. The Wilis’ white tutus have been replaced with straitjackets.
Le Lac des cygnes – Ballet de Perm
Swan Lake also proposes a variety of denouements, depending on the version performed. And there is a myriad of them! Here, the Perm National Opera presents Makarova's version.
During his 21st birthday ball, Prince Siegfried is required to choose a fiancée. One evening, by the shores of a lake, he falls in love with a young swan lady, Odette, victim of one of von Rothbart the magician’s spells. Learning that only eternal love will save her from this spell, the prince vows to be faithful to her. But von Rothbart the magician, determined to jeopardize this plan, introduces the prince to his own daughter Odile – the black swan – on whom he has bestowed Odette’s features. Siegfried, believing that it is the woman he loves, declares that she will be his future bride and, without being aware, betrays his real true love.
Swan Lake - Matthew Bourne
In Matthew Bourne's version, the swan is dressed in masculine finery and the corps de ballet, comprising men exclusively, have exchanged wispy tutus for trousers made of feathers. The swans turn out to be sensual, yet virile and threatening. Because the excitement of the prince, seduced by the swan, is accompanied by a disconcerting revelation: that of his homosexuality.
The ballet places greater emphasis on the solitude of the main character, misunderstood and imprisoned by the responsibilities of his princely status. The swan simultaneously represents the desire and the fear that the prince feels to proclaim his difference.
The revision made by Matthew Bourne drew attention because of its boldness. Yet, a few years before, Rudolph Noureev had already proposed a version of this ballet, in which he suggested the repressed homosexuality of the prince.
Lac - Jean-Christophe Maillot
For Jean-Christophe Maillot, it is the actual subject of the story that completely changes. Because, as he says, “The Lake, either we hijack it, or we sabotage it, or we attack it head on”. He chose the third option and called upon the playwright Jean Rouaud, who drew a cosmogenic tale from the original storyline. The swans were divided into two rival forces: the day and the night, life and death, animality and humanity. And if the White and the Black were danced by two individual performers, it was to show that both carried a duality within themselves. And here, von Rothbart is represented with feminine features. A rare occurrence… this metamorphosis of woman to bird is represented choreographically.
Swan lac – Andy Degroat
Here the prince, the birds and the spell, no longer hold centre stage. Because it is not so much the story that these choreographers have taken possession of but the work as a whole, in the shape of a monument of choreographic art. An icon of classicism, the “Lac” emerges as a vector of political and social significations.
For Andy Degroat, this is expressed through the introduction of rock music as a counterpoint to Tchaikovsky's score. A trio of dancers embodying the swans stride along the stage in a repetitive, geometric perambulation, whilst volte-facing and pivoting. Even their dance is not illustrative. It is expressed through the impetus of the music, exploiting borrowings from academic vocabulary: grands jetés, turns, ports de bras. Through his radical nature, his occasionally minimalistic language, the American choreographer, delivers a “post-modern” version of the “Lac” that has disorientated the ballet-fanatic public.
Swan Lake - Raimund Hoghe
During Raimund Hoghe's Swan Lake, certain members of the audience expressed the same incomprehension and left the theatre during the performance. Because the German choreographer had produced an extremely distorted version of the ballet, based on symbolic images that worked by contrasting the emotional intensity of the music and the quasi inaction of the performers. Such as here, in this porté between the prince and the swan, where the impossibility of their relationship is revealed.
When Hogue was young, he dreamt of dancing the “Lake” but nature cast a bad spell on him by giving him a deformed body. So, he used it as the subject of introspection based on ideals and standards of beauty, where he directed the bodies of prestigious dancers to which he confronted his own.
Daddy, I've seen this piece six times before and I still don't know why they're hurting each other... - Robyn Orlin
As a vector for an aesthetic ideal, Swan Lake, as an artistic piece of work, also refers to white Western culture. And it was in such terms that Robyn Orlin took it on, to describe the South African society that she came from. In this work, the choreographer does not genuinely revise the ballet but uses it to evoke white supremacy during Apartheid. The black female dancer sprinkles flour over herself to mask her original colour in the hope that she will perhaps be able to join the parade of white swans.
In more depth
DOLFUS, Ariane. Noureev : l'Insoumis. Paris : Flammarion, 2007. 531 p. (Biographies, Me).
Articles et reviews
« Giselle », in L'Avant-scène : Ballet danse, n° 1, numéro thématique, Paris, L’Avant-scène, 1980. 178 p.
MARMIN, Olivier. « Carlotta et Giselle : une interprète et son rôle », in Lunes, n° 14, Arles, éd. Lunes, janvier 2001. p. 66 – 74.
PIOLLET, Wilfride, GLON, Marie. « Corps de cygnes. », in Repères – Cahier de danse, n°24, Vitry-sur-Seine, La Briqueterie/CDC du Val-de-Marne, novembre 2009. p. 3-8.
- G, Garry Steward, Austrian Dance Theater, 2008.
- Giselle ou le mensonge romantique, Maryse Delente, Ballet du Nord, 1995
- Giselle Créole, Frederic Franklin, Dance Theatre of Harlem, 1984.
- Pour Giselle, Michel Hallet Eghayan, 1982.
Le Lac des Cygnes
- Illusions – comme un Lac des cygnes, John Neumeier, Ballet de Hambourg, 1976
- Le Lac des cygnes, Bertrand d'At, Ballet de l'Opéra national du Rhin, 1998.
- Svansjön, Mats Ek, Ballet Cullberg, 1987.
Anne Décoret-Ahiha is an anthropologist of dance, doctor of Paris 8 University. Speaker, trainer and consultant, she develops proposals around dance as an educational resource and designs participatory processes mobilizing corporeality. She animates the "Warming up of the spectator" of the Maison de la Danse.
Texts and bibliography selection
Maison de la Danse
The "Reinterpreting works" Parcours was created thanks to the support of the General Secretariat of the Ministry of Culture and Communication - Department for the Coordination of Cultural Policies and Innovation (SCPCI)