Swan Lake: Beauty Behind Pain (Act II Coda)
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
The more we love it, the more Act III's beguile will break our hearts.
White tutus. Misty backgrounds. Plaintive violin. Love, lust, and loss.
Originally debuted in 1875, Swan Lake is often considered the epitome of classical ballet. On the surface, its classicism comes from simplicity: the monochromatic swans and easy-to-understand love story are seemingly approachable, but this simplicity is deceptive. Perhaps even dangerous.
In reality, Swan Lake's beauty lies in the complex subtlety of its details. The intricacies of its choreography, the hidden secrets of stamina from its dancers, and the subtle notes of passion peppered across Tchaikovsky's score: it all has to be perfect. In fact, the true beauty of Odette and Siegfried's story is only achieved when each of these details is crafted to absolute excellence. Without such excellence, we're left with a rather odd story about a spoiled prince that falls in love with... a bird?
Trust me, there is emotional intensity hidden below this weird premise, but only if the dancers and musicians can pull off this necessary precision.
Moreover, without an understanding of these depths, I can see how audiences find it easy to dismiss Swan Lake as a boring, outdated and unnecessarily long production. Because of this requirement for detailed perfection, it can be hard to know what to look for.
My purpose today is to raise the curtain on these seemingly esoteric details and hopefully deepen our awareness and appreciation of this beloved show.
To start, I acknowledge that the show is long. Three hours, to be exact. Paying respect to each aspect that makes or breaks Swan Lake in one article would probably be more synonymous with writing an entire book. In an effort to ease this approachability, I will hone my twirls on one of my favorite scenes: the coda of Act II (2:43).
Though there are countless versions of Swan Lake in production today, most still use the original Petipa choreography for this scene because it is so iconically masterful.( Actually, though Petipa receives the credit, many say his assistant Lev Ivanov was really the brains behind this choreography. I'll give them both a shoutout and a curtsy.)
But that's enough drama. Let's twirl.
At this point in our story, Siegfried has found Odette at her lake and fallen deeply in love. Odette also yearns for the prince but is pained by the fact that she remains trapped in a bird's body. The two have finished seven minutes of painstakingly delicate partnering set to the soft, melancholic notes of harp and violin and are surrounded by the elegant structure of stoic corps de ballet members lining each side of the stage. The four cygnets and big swans have also danced, followed by Odette's solo, which is recreated by thousands at ballet competitions every year.
It's time to finish the Act, and we'll need something absolutely spectacular if we're to conclude the existing majesty of the previous fifteen minutes.
Here lies the coda.
Six corps women, three from either side of the stage, free themselves from their stoic lines and stand next to each other at the top of the theater. The conductor allows one moment of stillness to pass before starting the first of two famous melodies (27:11 if you'd like to see the sheet music) and launching the ballerinas into action.
They begin working downstage as they complete the eight-count choreographic phrase of two coupé ballonés, three hops en arabesque, and a pas de bourrée to change sides (2:49). After they finish four iterations of this phrase, they temps levé en arabesque (a fancy word for jump) out of the way to make room for a new group of women who have lined up behind them, ready to repeat the sequence again. The melody reiterates itself three times, allowing three groups of swans to complete this phrase. All the while, the women left on the side of the stage repeat a four-count phrase (coupé posé en attitude devant and coupe-fouetté raccourci sauté) on the spot over and over again.
All this fancy description essentially means that after about ten minutes of having no more than four dancers moving at once, the stage has turned into a flurry of action.
Moreover, when done correctly each of these phrases are completed in absolute unison. Though the number varies version-to-version, there are often upwards of forty corps swans onstage, and one of the hardest aspects of Swan Lake is the synchronization of them all.
This is especially difficult after standing stoically still for so long. Corps members will tell you that the stands on the side of the stage are some of the most painful moments in all of Swan Lake, and when they finally have a chance to move, they cannot relinquish any of that control. One arm out of place on in those sidelines or one leg thrown too high in the arabesque hops and the fragile pulchritude of the moment will crumble.
This pressure for uniformity is backed by the soundtrack of the repeated melody, adding tangibility to a tension that lies in the air. When the suspense reaches its peak, the orchestra breaks into its second melody, this one much louder and more aggressive (for a visual, just check out how many more notes appear on the sheet music at 27:44). Right before this burst, four women have lined up on the diagonal in the upstage left corner (3:24). When the sound erupts they explode into an eight-count series of six arabesque hops and a relevé sur les pointes (fancy term for going up on top of the pointe shoe). These are the same hops from the earlier phrase, but now they are bigger; their arms and legs are stretched further, which feels impossible, and each hop travels more distance. When they complete the phrase, they repeat it to the other side before finishing off with a sixteen-count series that leaves them standing in the downstage right corner (if you haven't noticed already, repeating phrases to the other side is the peanut butter to classical ballet's jelly).
Just as it sounds like the music is ready to finish, this big melody repeats again and a new group of swans complete this same phrase. Once more, this repetition of steps and music adds to the tension that grows in the hearts of the audience.
This is no accident; Tchaikovsky's music is meant to exude tragic passion. Born in the mid-nineteenth century, it's thought that he was gay long before homosexuality was remotely accepted.
In our story, Odette and Siegfried's love is doomed. Tchaikovsky shared this anguish in his own life.
His music embodies this passionate frustration, and Petipa and Ivanov's choreography offers a visual reflection of such emotions.
Just as this tension reaches its peak, the orchestra pauses (4:02). Suspense hangs in the air, and the corps stands still onstage. Odette has appeared in the upstage left corner. Quietly, the music begins again. This time we are back to the first melody but it is played at a glacial pace. Odette embodies this tone in her careful steps, leaning her upper body over her extended right leg before slowly transferring weight onto her pointe shoe. Delicately, she completes a demi fouetté into arabesque facing upstage. The controlled movement creates a sense of calm amongst the storm that has just erupted onstage, yet it's similar enough to the arabesque hops from earlier to maintain continuity between Odette and her swans. After finishing her fifth four-count fouetté, she's made it to the downstage right corner and the audience is on the edge of their seat. Moments ago Odette was full of anguished passion for Prince Siegfried. Why is she so calm?
Suddenly, in an outburst of the utmost pain and love, Odette flaps her arms and runs to the middle of the stage to complete one of the most iconic phrases in all of classical ballet's repertoire.
The second, louder melody from earlier erupts from the orchestra pit and Odette, seemingly controlled by this outburst, launches into an entrechat quatre followed by a relevé passé (4:21). She repeats this two-count phrase to the other side before finishing the eight-count with four relevé passés. All the while, her arms flutter in frantic yet somehow still graceful movements up and down.
An entrechat is a beating jump, meaning the legs are switching back and forth mid air. (Quatre refers to the number of beats: in this case four because Odette moves her legs back and forth twice and we count each leg separately). This adds a depth of movement separate from the up and down motion of a basic sauté (jump). Because of this magnitude, entrechats are often used to display desperation and a loss of control. Apart from this scene, another famous example would be Albretch's death in Giselle; upon being forced to dance until an ultimate collapse, the male lead must repeat thirty two entrechat six in a row (that link is worth the watch).
In a relevé passé, the dancer traces their toe along the supporting leg all the way up to the knee, ultimately drawing a triangle underneath the tutu. It is a simple step that is often one of the first things a student will learn en pointe, but when done at this speed they are one of the hardest movements to control. Keeping the toe glued to the supporting leg is near impossible; our natural inclination is to let it float nearby to decrease resistance, but this looks messy. In the video, you can see even this beautiful prima ballerina struggles to keep her foot absolutely glued to the leg while still reaching the knee every time.
The phrase of these two steps together make for a lot of movement underneath Odette's tutu. She repeats the whole sequence two and a half times until her legs and arms are two separate blurs and her face displays an anguish that is probably not acting but rather a sign of how physically painful the steps truly are.
To finish, she completes a series of piqué tours en dehors (for short we often call these "lame ducks." I don't know why) and chaînés (spins) that head for downstage right (4:34). As she reaches the bottom, her body is seconds away from giving in to the centripetal force of the turns but she holds on long enough to seize a moment of stillness en relevé (hello, core strength!).
The orchestra follows suit, and the audience holds their breath. For a moment, everything is once again frozen, and Odette waits for the music to return before coming down off of her balance (in reality, the conductor is waiting for Odette to come down, but I prefer to imagine she can balance forever).
The physicality of this display combined with the growing desperation of Tchaikovsky's repeated melodies create a tragic passion that will hang in the air long into intermission. Within the production, it's a manifestation of the chaos inside Odette's heart.
For the audience, it's a visual representation of the pain that love is destined to create for us all.
Depending on the version, Odette and Siegfried will take a some sort of path into the middle of the stage as the corps organize themselves in their final pose (4:42). They create their last moments of synchrony as the orchestra belts their final notes. The scene ends grandly and gracefully, giving way to the transitional music that ends the act.
For Odette and Siegfried, there is no turning back: their love has blossomed despite its foreboding tragedy. For Odette's swans, their leader has been spiritually swept away, never to be the same. Neither group realizes the extent of this fate but the audience, silent witness to it all, watches this love grow even as we know of the impending heartbreak to come.
This final scene of Act II is the dancers' final chance to persuade us into their love story. The more we love it, the more Act III's beguile will break our hearts. But that is the beauty of Swan Lake. That is the beauty of ballet.
Now that you've made it to the end, try going back and watching the coda from start to finish. Notice anything different or new?
I first published this article on the original twirls4thoughts blog, Jul. 6 2019 Here are some other versions of the Act II Coda available on YouTube. I used The Mariinsky Ballet's version in this article. Certain videos below will have slightly different choreography or formations. Try and see if you can spot them!
Paris Opera Ballet: Coda starts at 2:53
Bolshoi Ballet: Coda starts at 0:00
American Ballet Theater: Coda starts at 0:00
The Kirov Ballet: Coda starts at 55:39
The Royal Ballet: Coda starts at 1:05:28