I threw my neck out in the middle of Swan Lake tonight. Act III, to be precise. Everything up to that point had been going pretty well.
I’ve danced Swan Lake a lot. Actually, it was the first ballet I ever did with the company. My parents and my sister Gwen flew in from Michigan for my debut. I remember trying to describe my stage position so they would know where I was in the flock.
“I’ll know which one you are,” Mom said. “I’ll be holding my breath the whole time. And probably squeezing your father’s hand off!”
“Actually, the collective noun for swans is a wedge of swans,” Dad said. “Although that’s used when they are flying in a V formation. Otherwise it might be a bevy of swans. Or a herd.”
“Merde,” said Gwen, because that is what dancers say to each other instead of “break a leg.” Some dancers say “toi toi toi,” which is kind of an opera thing. I’ve always thought that was a little pretentious, but whatever works for you. The girl who had my dressing room before me was Jewish and she put up one of those mezuzah thingies on the doorway. She took it with her when she retired, but I still touch the strip of sticky tape that remains before going onstage. That isn’t about superstition, or religion. It’s about ritual. Well, maybe it’s about superstition because I did it the first time as a joke and that night I had a spectacular performance and so now I always do it.
I wasn’t having a spectacular night tonight, but it was clean. No real mistakes, everything neat and tidy. The first role of my evening—one of the four Big Swans in Act II—had gone well, despite Fumio dragging the tempi. That’s fine for Anne-Marie, who was dancing Odette and likes things slow, but tough on the rest of us, who had to stand still and cramp through solos that felt like the length of the Old Testament. For Act III I was dancing the Polish Princess. That’s a solo, and it’s fairly action-packed with pirouettes, but for some reason I find it less daunting than Big Swans. Maybe it’s the costume. For Big Swans I’m all in white: crisp feathered tutu, white tights, white pointe shoes, feathered headpiece. The whole thing just screams, “And now . . . SERIOUS BALLET: please be perfect.” Polish Princess gear has a knee-length skirt that hides a multitude of sins, and it’s all flounces and furbelows. Jaunty little headgear. I feel like as long as I keep up a general air of “I am so HUGELY PSYCHED to be POLISH!” and avoid actually falling on my ass, I’m in the clear.
It occurs to me that maybe you don’t know what Swan Lake is all about. I haven’t assigned you a face or body, invisible audience member, let alone a background in the arts. Maybe you’ve never seen Swan Lake. Maybe you’ve seen it and you still don’t really know what happened because you dropped your program under the seat in front of you and didn’t want to scramble around for it in an ungainly fashion. Swan Lake, like all the major classical ballets, really needs program notes because otherwise you have to follow the plot points in ballet mime, and god knows those are truly undecipherable.
You’re familiar with the music though, right? At the very least you’ve heard it in a TV commercial for like, Mop & Glo or something, and seen that line of linked dancers in white feathered tutus clip-clopping in pointe shoes across a sparkling floor? Dun-dun-dun-DUN-duddle dundundun, Dun-dun-dun-DUN—duddle dundundun. Tchaikovsky. I’m not being condescending. I try not to think about the fact that most people don’t ever go to the ballet, but I get that they don’t. I do get that.
So yes a synopsis might be in order, and if you know it already you can just nap for a bit. Most productions of Swan Lake don’t vary all that much from one another. There are one or two really funky versions out there, but those aren’t done by classical ballet companies. You can’t deviate too far in classical ballet or you’re no longer, well . . . classical. And it’s not like Shakespeare, where you can reset the whole thing in World War II, or a Mexican brothel, or something. Well you could, but the plotline won’t stand up under a whole lot of tinkering and we’ve got a subscription audience to satisfy. They want the Swan Lake they know and love, which by and large is the one that was done for the 1895 revival of the ballet by the choreographer Petipa and his ballet master, Ivanov. Sometimes an artistic director might change a few things or restage certain sections. Like Marius—our current artistic director—added a Prelude to our version.
The curtain rises on a nearly empty stage, with a backdrop of a lake and some boulders Stage Left leading up to a cave. Enter a young girl. She is wearing white and her hair is mostly down, so we know right away she is Young and Innocent. The girl dances dreamily by herself and all seems peaceful enough until suddenly a shadowy sort of caped figure emerges from the cave. It is the evil magician Von Rothbart. We know he’s a magician because he’s got the cape, and that he’s evil because underneath the cape his costume is this demonic rubbery sort of thing that Roger refers to as “Mein Von Goblin Wear.” Von Rothbart makes some gestures and a fog starts rolling in and darkness descends. The girl appears to lose her way in the mist. She does the big “I’m lost!” gesture: one hand in front of the face, taking tentative steps forward, peering around, etc. Von Rothbart slithers down from his boulders and makes more magic gestures, luring the girl into his arms. He swirls his cape around her, turns, and walks upstage, the cape billowing out in such a way that the girl is able to slip into the hydraulic trap and be replaced with another girl, this one in full Swan regalia: the stiff white tutu with the feathered bodice and headpiece. This is Odette, the ballerina we’ll watch for the rest of the evening. The other one was a girl in the corps with a wig on to match the hair color of whoever is dancing Odette that night. It’s the old switcheroo. (Be amazed by this bit of stage magic, okay? It’s not like we can pull anything off with CGI.)
So Von Rothbart reveals this magically changed creature and she beats her arms and tries to run away, but Von Rothbart is able to control her, and using more of his dastardly powers he summons onto stage two rows of women in white swan tutus who form a V and beat their arms in unison as the evil magician stands triumphant with the stricken Odette pressed against his Von Goblin Wear. Lights fall, curtain, end of Prelude.
The program notes will tell you that the evil magician has placed all these poor women under a curse and that they are condemned to be swans by day and women by night. Von Rothbart’s personal motivations for such malevolent behavior are not explained. You’re at the ballet. Deal with it.
Act I opens in the village green of an unspecified, vaguely German realm. We’re a little hazy on the time period too. It’s Days of Yore, I guess, in the yore when everyone in pseudo Germany wandered around their village green in nearly identical outfits. Ours have a slightly Renaissance Fair vibe to them, which I think is a mistake. The sleeves are too puffy and give all the girls man shoulders. Anyway, A Village Green Scene is standard issue for classical ballet, and if you’ve seen one circlet of peasant-dancing hoo-ha, you’ve seen them all. There’s a garland dance and a Maypole and a lot of people standing around fake clapping or pointing out to each other that other people are dancing in the middle of the stage. This kind of random milling about drives me NUTS, but honestly there just aren’t a lot of options. We can’t pretend like we’re talking to each other, because that would be weird and anti-ballet. We don’t have props or activities like you see in plays or the opera—that would take up stage space. So everyone just wanders around greeting each other with head nods if you’re a girl and shoulder thumping if you’re a guy, and then one person will indicate Center Stage like “Hey, did you see? There are people dancing! Isn’t that neat!” And the other person will make a gesture like “Yes! Dancing. It is happening there!”
So here we are in the Village Green of Wherever filled with people who like to greet each other maniacally every ten seconds and then in walks Prince Siegfried, Prince of the realm of Wherever. Siegfried is greeted by his best buddy, “Ivor” (sometimes he has a different name and sometimes he’s like a court jester, but in our version he’s Ivor, Friend to the Prince). Ivor gets the Prince interested in some of these wonderful Maypole high jinks, the crowning moment of which is a big pas de trois Ivor dances with two local girls. The Act I pas de trois is a nice featured part, and getting to dance one of the two girls in it is a sign that things are going well for you in the company and you might not have to spend your whole career as third bird from the left.
Swan Lake floats in and out of our repertoire, so it was two years after my debut before we did it again, this time on tour, and I was cast as one of the pas de trois girls. And even though Gwen had only been in the company for about five seconds at that point, she was cast as the other girl. Our parents came to Chicago to see us, along with our brother, Keith.
“So, are you sisters in the ballet?” he asked. “Is that like part of it?”
“We’re maidens,” I said. “Nameless maidens.”
“Everybody says we look like twins!” Gwen said. “But you’ll be able to tell us apart. The one dancing better will be Kate.”
Okay, so after the pas de trois between Ivor and the nameless maidens, Prince Siegfried dances a solo where he expresses (much jumping) his desire to find True Love. Then we have the appearance of the Prince’s mother, the Queen. Lots of fanfare and aggressive pointing by all the villagers: “Look, it’s the Queen! Hey, did you see? The Queen!” She’s usually played by some old-timer—a ballet mistress or a teacher. Galina Sukonova is our Queen, and possesses a whole repertoire of animatronic facial expressions. It’s a frightening thing up close, but good for those who can only afford seats in the top tiers. The Queen reminds Siegfried with some incomprehensible ballet mime that tomorrow is his twenty-first birthday and he’s got obligations, like choosing a bride and getting married. The Prince sulks a bit at this, and makes the gesture for True Love: one hand to the breast, the other held aloft with the first two fingers extended. (You’re gonna want to scootch down and get that program for the explanatory notes on this action, because otherwise you might think that the Queen is telling her son that he needs to get a manicure and that Siegfried is responding by trying to hail a cab, or test current wind conditions.)
Siegfried cheers up when the Queen presents him with a nifty-looking crossbow as a birthday present. Siegfried really loves his crossbow. He runs around stage with it, showing it to everybody Stage Left, and Stage Right, and then Stage Left again, just in case anybody Stage Left had their eyes closed. Basically eating up some music. Siegfried indicates to Ivor that he wants to go hunting RIGHT NOW, and Ivor indicates that night is falling and now’s not a great time for him. Siegfried impulsively decides to go anyway, and Ivor reluctantly follows him. End of Act I.
Excerpted from The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey. Copyright © 2012 by Meg Howrey. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.