Swan Lake and ballet

 I did not think I would come back to this blog so soon, but here I am.

Something has been on my mind for the past few days and posting about it on social media is not enough. As many of you who follow me probably know, I have a granddaughter aged four and like many little girls of her age she goes to 'ballet class'. It was my idea to take her and am glad her parents allowed me to enrol her for classes - her parents are neutral about ballet, though it transpires my daughter-in-law went to ballet class till the age of 12 and so did her mother. We have common ground here. 

I want my granddaughter to understand that ballet is a complex and beautiful art form.  I often recount to her the plots of famous ballets and we watch video clips  so that she can see what ballet looks like when danced by the 'big girls' and 'big boys'. At her age ballet is a playful activity, which gives plenty of scope to develop the imagination. Yes, she is learning the basics as she goes along but this is not a time when she needs to worry about her extensions and developpés. It will come later - if she sticks to it. 

She is not yet allowed to go and watch a ballet, in the UK the minimum age for children to be admitted to a performance is five and when you think about it,  it is just about right, a child must be able to sit quietly and watch and that requires some preparation too ie full explanation of what they are going to see, the storyline, what to look for. I am planning to take her to see The Nutcracker as soon as she is five but also Swan Lake, about which we talked at length. She was interested in the dynamics of the narrative and being quite musical soon after watching a clip of the four cygnets dancing she decided to imitate them, singing 'tatata' and jumping around.  After seeing Odile's thirty-two fouettés she commented the dancer must have been really tired after performing them - likely, but as an audience, you never see that  - and then asked for a white tutu and a black one so that she could play being Odette/Odile at home.  I think she is a budding ballet lover. Whether she will pursue ballet when she is older is a different matter, it is a decision that must come from her and her alone. Dance - and ballet in particular - is a vocation.  Not only that. You need to have the right body for it - and by this, I definitely do not mean skin -colour because it is frankly irrelevant. I know, it sounds brutal to talk of body type but that's ballet for you.

Following this recent exchange, I decided to go and watch Swan Lake once again and luckily it has been programmed by the Royal Ballet for this season. I have tickets for a dress rehearsal - I have seen Swan Lake many times and I am very fussy about how it is danced. I will buy proper tickets only if the rehearsal inspires me. I am one of those audience members who expects Odile to perform the 32 fouttés and can count them. 

From what I have told you so far two threads emerge. The first one is about the accessibility of ballet as an art form; the second is about Swan Lake as an iconic ballet. 

Let's start with the issue of accessibility. Ballet is an elitist art form, there is no question of it, the elitism is part of its pedigree. But this does not mean it should be cancelled, it would be absurd. Efforts should be made to make it more accessible to people who would not normally go and watch ballet. Efforts should also be made to encourage young people with an aptitude for ballet to train - and the training is arduous and expensive. Much has been done, but perhaps not enough. As for the narrative content of classical ballets, we cannot expect 19th-century ballets to be politically correct. I was saddened to learn that a classic such as La Bayadere is virtually banned in the US and now the UK because it is Orientalist. Of course it is, it was devised in the 19th century. To take it literally is quite absurd. 

As for Swan Lake it is one of those ballets that the more you watch the more you get out of it. Its symbolism may not be apparent but the story about Prince Sigfried and the Swan Queen Odette, who is also Odile, the twin created by the magician von Rothbart is full of nuances.  

You can give it many different interpretations. There is a bit of Hamlet in it - what is the relationship between the Queen and von Rothbart? There is the idea that neither Odette nor Odile are real  but they are both figments of Sigfried's imagination. And then there are the different endings - happy one, tragic one. 

The music alone could be a concert piece - and I remember first encountering Swan Lake as a recording  by Claudio Abbado. I thought it was a concert piece then I realised it was a ballet. 

Anyway, these are my raw thoughts. I will be happy to discuss further.