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The Russian Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake: something for everyone

A shot through the heart, and true love triumphs!

A lesson in the virtue and difficulty of certain sorts of uniformity.
  • A lesson in the virtue and difficulty of certain sorts of uniformity.
  • Courtesy of Russian Ballet Theatre

For the dark young man in flowing white drag: a heightened sense of reality, folk tales and folk dances transmogrified into sinuous spectacle by the touring company. Each movement considered and choreographed and beyond the ken of ordinary people. When Evgeny Svetlitsa’s Prince reaches longingly for Olga Kifyak’s Odette, every muscle — joint, tendon, bone, inch — joins in the motion.

For the tall man wearing the audience’s only tuxedo: a chance to dress for the occasion, to honor the artists’ high and formal achievement with high and formal style.

For the Bright Young Things on a date: a chance to leave screenland behind and step out like grown-ups, and to ponder the subtle but very real difference between courtship and seduction, as portrayed by White Swan Odette and Black Swan Odile. Something about the speed in the curl of a leg around a torso, the masked aggression in a still-graceful approach, the knowing character of self-display.

Folk tales and folk dances transmogrified into sinuous spectacle.

Folk tales and folk dances transmogrified into sinuous spectacle.

Courtesy of Russian Ballet Theatre

For the well-fed businessman with his entrance ticket on his Apple watch: a reminder of the things money cannot buy and effort cannot achieve: the very particular physical perfection required to reach the top in this very particular world. Jester Mikhail Ovcharov was arguably a stronger dancer than the Prince, but he was perhaps too compact of frame to properly romance Odette. But at least Mr. Apple Watch can watch.

For the punky teen with the blue hair shaved close on the sides: a lesson in the virtue and difficulty of certain sorts of uniformity: a bevy of swans moving as one, to mesmerizing effect.

For the little girl, maybe five or six, silver ballet slippers over her white tights, the pink tulle skirt of her dress mimicking the tutu she surely owns: first, the dream that one day, that will be her up there on the stage at Copley Symphony Hall, sinking low into a révérence that simultaneously connects her to the cheering audience and isolates her in a rarefield world of solitary triumph. And second, a weirdly happy ending that at least hews to the rule that if you introduce a crossbow in the first act, it had better go off in the second. A shot through the heart, and true love triumphs!

A heightened sense of reality.

A heightened sense of reality.

And for the grumpy old man wondering what happened to the tragic ending demanded by the storyline — if maybe the devil deserves some sympathy for feeling cheated when Jesus just up and rose from the dead — a lesson in the mutability of art, especially works that require living artists to present them. Turns out Swan Lake’s been tweaked almost from the day it premiered, ending included. The happily-ever-after version is not a product of Generation Disney, but dates all the way back to 1950, under the Soviet regime.

The Russian Ballet Theatre’s production designer, Sergey Novikov, puts it this way: “Despite the dark history of Russia during the 20th century, when everything was being destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again, somehow, the culture survived. Or rather, the traditions of Russian culture. Russian culture and Russian society are built on tradition, ‘tradition’ in the broadest sense. With every iteration, designers offer something new, but Swan Lake is a classical production, and it cannot exist independently from its vast cultural history.”

Beauty may save the world, but if you buy a tote bag, you can help pay for it.

Beauty may save the world, but if you buy a tote bag, you can help pay for it.

Tchaikovsky’s original production, for example, featured a prologue played before a dropped curtain. Later productions used the prologue as opportunity to provide a reason for the wizard Rothbart’s transformational curse on Odette. (The original original had a wicked stepmother instead of a wizard, but that was scrapped early on; see what I mean about mutability?) Novikov splits the difference, dropping a sheer black curtain crawling with swirling, thorny vines over the scene: Rothbart’s romantic appeal, Odette’s rejection of his love, and the wizard’s outraged response. The action is obscured: an evil deed done in the shadows, Novikov’s attempt to “visualize and draw” the now-famous music.

The Theatre’s SFX makeup designer, Irina Strukova, knows whereof he speaks. She grew up listening to Swan Lake’s music as part of her parents “very rich library of vinyl records. I would often fantasize and draw imaginary worlds while listening to my favorites.” That led to a musical-artistic college education and after that, an architectural design academy. By the time she descended from macro to micro — space to individual within that space — she had a good sense of how “visual and auditory elements unite to provide audiences with a sense of cathartic satisfaction and awe.”

Usually, she applies that sense to film work; however, she says, “the public has been spoiled with action, CGI effects, million dollar budgets. That’s why we found it particularly interesting to combine the techniques for creating SFX makeup and a classical production. My task was to create the headpiece/mask for Rothbart, who is half-demon, half owl. Considering the particulars of ballet, I had to move away from classical prosthetics, but the technical procedure was still the same: sculpture on a mold of the actor’s head, detail molding, painting, decorating, and detailing.”

And spoiled or no, “this tour demonstrates the public’s demand for productions such as this,” says Strukova, who immigrated to the US last year. “Some go to the opera, others to football matches, some prefer art exhibitions, some prefer movies” — and some still turn out for the ballet. Novikov tells me that “masterpieces patiently await new audiences, which will inevitably come. In Russia, the public continues to support the classical arts, and mainly, patrons hail from younger generations.” But Strukova notes that “classical arts are very particular, and live productions tend to be expensive, but it has always been this way. They are historically mainly supported by philanthropists, and we must be grateful. To quote a Russian classic, ‘Beauty will save the world.’”

Listening to her casual listing of opera alongside football matches gets me thinking: perhaps I ought not to have been so hard on Mr. Apple Watch. Perhaps he helped make the night possible for the Bright Young Things and the five-year-old girl who got to see the magic of film effects grafted onto the immanence of live performance. Beauty may save the world, but someone has to pay for it.

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