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Swan Song 

Giselle locked in a psych ward? Must be Mats Ek's Swan Lake

Wednesday, Oct 23 2002
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Just as Swan Lake is one of the best-loved Romantic ballets, Swedish choreographer Mats Ek is one of the most highly regarded revisionists of the classical repertoire (keeping good company with Matthew Bourne and Angelin Preljocaj). Ek's Aurora isn't just sleeping in Sleeping Beauty -- she's nodding off in an opiate haze. His Giselle, mad with grief, ultimately finds herself not forest-bound but locked in a psych ward. And in Ek's Swan Lake (1987) -- which his company, the Cullberg Ballet, performs here this week as part of a rare U.S. tour -- Prince Siegfried has major problems with women.

Ek has homed in on the psychology of the renowned ballet, although he retains Tchaikovsky's rich score as well as the good girls, bad girls, and bossy matriarch of the 19th-century original. Nor does he deviate widely from the Ivanov/Petipa plot, in which Siegfried, on his 21st birthday, is commanded by his mother to choose a bride. He falls for Odette, a lovely half-woman, half-bird creature ruled by the magician Rothbart. But Rothbart tricks the prince into choosing his vixenlike accomplice Odile instead, whom Siegfried mistakes for Odette in disguise.

In Ek's Swan Lake, Odette wears the traditional white tutu and Odile the black as the battle plays out. But these conventional touches don't keep the production from being funny, almost cartoonish, and more sexually charged than amorous. The dancers' sleek classicism opens up into footloose abandon across the understated set. Ek's ineffectual Siegfried signals his frustration with his mother -- a red-clad dominatrix -- by doubling over and banging his head against his knees. The swan maidens, typically visions of womanly beauty, are barefoot, bald, and of indeterminate gender. The question here is not whether good will vanquish evil (Ek hints that Odette and Odile are the same woman), but whether our prince can reconcile an elusive feminine ideal with an attainable, albeit less glamorous, reality.

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Heather Wisner

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