Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swan Lake and gender perceptions

I saw Swan Lake this weekend and it was enchanting. Got me thinking once again about the story. Though the plot pulled very loosely from a few existing tales, it was basically created for the ballet itself. Given that it reflected the values of a few men in 1895, the gender roles in the ballet are very cliche. In fact, I found myself bored with Odette and Siegfried's characters-Siegfried spends the vast majority of his time looking perplexed, or trying to find Odette, who looks scared and woeful the whole time. My favorite part was Odile, who has not only the flashiest moves but at least looks like she enjoys dancing.

From this site, by Aaron Green:

"We do know that Tchaikovsky had much control over the stories content. He and his colleagues both agreed that the swan represented womanhood in its purest form. The stories and legends of swan-maidens date as far back as ancient Greece; when the Greek god Apollos was born, flying swans circled above their heads. Legends of swan maidens can also be found in The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights, Sweet Mikhail Ivanovich the Rover and The Legend of the Children of Lir. "

So I guess according to Tchaikovsky and his colleagues, "womanhood in its purest form" is a fragile and powerless creature, with no real personality or depth, defined by being a victim (Ironically, Tchaikovsky was a pretty fragile creature himself-more on that here.)
This view of women is frowned upon by most people in Western culture today. The ballet has been reinterpreted by Matthew Bourne with a corps of male swans, challenging preconceived notions (this is the production Billy Elliot stars in, if you saw the movie). Bourne said, "The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me. The strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu." It's true that the power of the male dancer is extremely impressive-while the female can acheive the affect of defying gravity by dancing en pointe, the male can do so simply by the strength of his jumps, seeming to linger in the air for longer than humanly possible.

Then of course there's the Mercedes Lackey novel, Black Swan, which I've mentioned multiple times before, but I kept thinking of Lackey's compelling characters as I watched the ballet. Though the prisoners of Von Rothbart are still victims, Lackey's females have depth and dimension and her unique take on Odile's character is just wonderful.

The original ballet ended with a tragic ending, and each production comes up with its own. I think happy endings are the most prevalent these days. Although, listening to the music-the famous minor theme is major at the end, it seems hard to believe it could accompany the death of any of the main characters.


  1. I think I've said this here before, but "Princess Tutu" plays heavily on the idea of the white and black swans (well...the duck and the Raven's Daughter, but the metaphor is clear nonetheless). It's a beautiful little short series.

  2. Princess Tutu is a fabulous series, especially for people who adore fairy tales. It also plays around with gender roles in these stories and certain tropes. Another interesting version is the 1980 Japanese animated Swan Lake, which presents Odile as a mildly comic femme fatale type and Odette as a melancholy young woman. Save for its presentation of Rothbart as a lovelorn, comedic villain (though threatening when he needs to be), it's a straightforward adaptation.

    I do agree Odette and Siegfried have little personality, but I think the idea is the power of their love, how it overcomes all, from her miserable existence as a swan maiden and even death itself. There are versions where they die together and are then shown ascending into heaven, reinforcing this idea.