Tuesday, September 5, 2017

From the Archives: Swan Lake and Gender Perceptions

The Royal Ballet 

Though the plot of the ballet Swan Lake is 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, the last time I saw the ballet 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 character 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 really prefer Lackey's compelling characters. 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 tragically, and each production comes up with its own. I think happy endings are the most prevalent these days (ballet people out there, correct me if I'm wrong!). 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 the two main characters...


  1. As graceful and beautiful as swans are, they are also big and strong birds that are physically capable of doing quite a bit of damage when they attack, and they have a reputation of being aggressive creatures, capable of breaking a human arm with their beak or wing. While experts today make it clear that swans mostly attack when defending their nest, and give ample warning signs before (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17736292), this was probably still assumed to be true in Tchaikowsky´s time. It seems to contradict the notion of the female swan as a passive victim, so what´s up with that? Looking into some other swan legends, I first found a parallel of sorts to the "children of Lir" who are cursed (evil stepmother did it) into swans and have to spend 900 years living as swans (translates into "leading a pure life", finishing it off with getting a monk´s blessing) to lift the curse. The Brothers Grimm collected another tale ("The Wild Swans", similar to "The 7 Ravens") in which a group of siblings is also cursed into swans, but only the boys are transformed. The only sister resists the spell (because she has a pure heart) and then goes actively about lifting it off her brothers - by collecting stinging nettles and weaving hair shirts, as worn by ascetics and religious penitents for them. The motif of purity and (sort of religious) salvation is also very strong here, as in "The Children of Lir". (Which brings into mind the story of Lohengrin, the pure Grail Knight, who does not transform but is associated with a swan nevertheless.) So I guess Odette´s passivity in "Swan Lake" may be connected to the notion of the passively suffering Madonna as one feminine ideal of the time; and I guess there is some age-old rivalry between local religious traditions and Christianity reflected in the stories as well. The very Biblical motif of the Pure one being betrayed by the wrong choice and eventually doomed/sacrificed (which we also find in Andersen´s "Little Mermaid" - though, arguable, the mermaid does not have a soul, so is in a bit of a different position) sort of ties in with that. Another interesting parallel I found was in "The Dream of Oengus" which has a young woman transform into a swan at certain intervals, and her lover (who saw her in a dream and is looking to meet her) having to find her out among a flock of hundreds of swans. He chooses correctly - and, being the son of the Dagda, he transforms into a swan himself to join her. (An unusual "Happy ever after" - though this story is a mixture of the Swan-Maiden legends and the Cursed Into A Swan ones). In Finnish folklore, swans have a connection to the underworld and whoever killed a swan was doomed to die himself (this concept would make it clear why Siegfried, having "killed" Odette by his wrong choice, was in for a bad end in one version of the ending, even though she forgives him). Leaving aside "Leda and the Swan" (where the swan is the polar opposite of Purity), most legends of swan transformations that I came across seem to belong to the "Swan Maiden" type (in which the Swan is the original form, the otherworldly being transforms into a human and is prevented from changing back, many related tales with other creatures than swans); whereas only a handful use the "curse" motif which ties "Swan Lake" in with "Beauty and the Beast" and some other tales in which a human is transformed by a spell (for whatever reason) and needs to be saved by another human, such as "Brother and Sister" (boy turned into a deer), "Frog King", "Wild Swans", "7 Ravens". Forgive my ramblings, your article was so very thought-inspiring :)

    1. Minor correction: The Wild Swans is actually an Andersen tale and one that really accentuates the female protagonists suffering, similar to his The Little Mermaid. The Grimm fairy tale "The 6 Swans", is very similar, but stinging nettles as the materials the shirts have to be made of are an Andersen invention (and very typical of Andersen if I might say so ;).

      Birds have been associated with female suffering for a long time, so Tchaikovsky didn't have to reach too far. But as you've demonstrated that usually the female protagonist was human and suffered for her relatives or lover. The male protagonists, while cursed to be birds, were not the focus of the story (only at the end if a brother keeps a wing instead of an arm or turns blind our sympathy goes to him).
      However there are cases when a woman gets turned into a bird. Usually after being replaced being replaced by a female rival and/or impostor. And usually the bird she turns into is a duck, an animal associated with water, rather than air. I don't make this connection randomly, since folktales featuring this story line which you may know from "The White Duck", one of the inspirations for Swan Lake, have her turn into a fish instead.

      Perhaps that is the explanation for the contradictory associations that Swans trigger: They are creatures of the air, even more so than ducks (at least the ducks we know nowadays, that have been bred to look pretty and stay on their pond rather than fly well), but also creatures of the water. I don't know why air represents masculinity and water feminity, but that connection has been part of our folklore for a long time. (It would be interesting to find out if Europe is alone here or if that association can be found around the world.) Therefore Swans lend themselves to male and female readings, which can both be supported by other traits of the swan, such as its slim figure as opposed to its strength. This is also how Swan Maidens fit in: I didn't mention them above, because they are not cursed into their form, they choose it. Some stories imply they are birds turning into women, rather than the other way around. They are then literally and figuratively robbed of their ability to fly away by the male protagonist. When she looses her connection to the air, she becomes a human woman, dependent on a man. Or am I reading too much into that?

    2. Yukari and Julia, so many great insights! At least today, there are so many amusing contradictions in how we perceive animals and how they actually act-so many of them look cute and cuddly and are featured as stuffed toys and popular on children's clothes, but can be quite fierce. Maybe it's just a natural tendency to make assumptions about animals based on appearance?

      When I have more time I would love to look more deeply into swans and fairy tales-I'm not familiar with "The Children of Lir" or "The Dream of Oenegus"...or maybe one of you would be willing to write a guest post?? My post on Swans Maidens from "Fairy Tale Fashion" touched a bit on the transformations and female suffering attached with swans: http://talesoffaerie.blogspot.com/2016/06/fairy-tale-fashion-swan-maidens.html but clearly there's more to dig into!