For ballet enthusiasts, Swan Lake is our Superbowl. It is the ballet; the one that gets us excited and teary-eyed at the same time. And even for those who are not particularly familiar with the ballet world, Swan Lake still holds a special significance. After all, Natalie Portman even won an Oscar for her portrayal of a dancer cast as Odette/Odile. At the same time, I will admit that Swan Lake may be one of the most boring ballets to ever exist.
It is not that I find the ballet boring; for me, Swan Lake leaves me on the edge of my seat for all three hours. But for ballet amateurs, the entire process is terribly drawn-out and fails to make sense. The plot is convoluted and vaguely misogynistic. For anyone unfamiliar with the storyline, Swan Lake starts with Prince Siegfried being nagged by his mother to find a wife. While on a hunt, he falls in love with Odette, the Swan Queen. She reveals that she was once a beautiful maiden who was transformed by the evil Von Rothbart, along with all of her swan sisters. She can only become human if a man swears to love her (hint hint). Then at a ball, Von Rothbart’s daughter Odile arrives disguised at Odette, and Prince Siegfried proposes to her. The real Odette is heartbroken, and from here there are a myriad of endings that can take place: Odette commits suicide, Odette and Siegfried die together, or Von Rothbart dies and the couple lives happily ever after.
This storyline is confusing and has a few plot holes. First off, are we supposed to believe that Prince Siegfried actually falls in love with a swan? Also, is he so dumb that he cannot tell the difference between Odile and Odette? And what about all the other swans? Do they get a happy ending or are they resigned to be swans forever? Finally, why did Von Rothbart turn the women into swans in the first place? Ballets may not be known for their great plots, but Swan Lake may be one of the worst when it comes to storyline.
Perhaps even worse than its plot, however, may be Swan Lake’s dancing. Again, I should clarify that while personally, I find Swan Lake’s ten minute pas de deux to be jaw-dropping, I know that ballet newbies will be left less than impressed. Compared to The Nutcracker, the only ballet that can hold a candle to Swan Lake’s notoriety, Swan Lake fails to pique the interest of the general public. The Nutcracker is smart; it features short, energetic dances, astonishing lifts and jumps, and bright, colorful costumes. Swan Lake, on the other hand, drags on for hours on end with choreography that will only impress dance enthusiasts.
Swan Lake is boring because it has failed to change with the times. Its choreography has remained essentially unchanged for a century, and it is obvious to any audience member. Swan Lake may have worked in 1917, but today, in an era of ridiculously-high extensions, quintuple pirouettes, and high jumps galore, the choreography does not fly. Dance purists can grumble on and on about the “better days” of ballet, but a simple fact remains: ballet is dying as an art form, and the only way to revive it is to cater to the public’s interest. Swan Lake will always hold a special place in my heart, but I am ready for a change (and my non-dancer friends are practically begging for one).