Over the weekend I saw the French film, Un Baiser S’il Vous Plait, or Shall We Kiss (I don’t much like the English title translation, sounds too much like Shall We Dance and “A Kiss Please” is just cuter). I guess I’d call the movie a sweet romantic comedy albeit not without a bit of tragedy. Problem for me was, soundtrack is comprised mainly of Tchaikovsky ballet music — largely The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and I learned something about myself: I can’t watch a movie with subtitles and focus on the subtitles when my favorite ballet music is playing in the background — I keep seeing the dancers instead of the little words at the bottom of the screen. I do wonder if I were fluent in French how the music would have affected me — whether I’d likewise have been unable to listen to the words over the notes– but I do know for sure I can’t concentrate simultaneously on three visuals (actors on screen, words on screen, and dancer-visions in my head).
It also made me think how enduring music is. There’s one little scene where a woman is cutely and “innocently” flirting with a man — although the whole film is about how destructive one supposedly simple little kiss can be, what it can lead to — and in the background is playing the Dance of the Four Cygnets from SL. And it’s actually very dulcet, although if you listen carefully, you can see how the music could be interpreted as somewhat threatening in its seductive charm. It ends up being perfect for this story where flirtatious behavior can destroy a relationship. And yet, that’s not what’s really going through your mind during that dance in the ballet. At least I don’t think it’s what’s supposed to be going through your mind? As I’m watching, anyway, I’m not thinking how dangerously seductive are those cute little swans; it’s just a difficult part for four dancers doing challenging steps perfectly in sync. But it made me think how Tchaikovsky’s ingenious music can be used to add insight and emotion to other stories besides that for which it was created. Maybe music has a longer-lasting life than dance, sadly… Although I love that filmmakers are using it — perhaps it will make watchers curious about the music’s origins…
(Wendy Whelan in Balanchine’s Swan Lake, photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy of New York City Ballet)
Anyway, I never wrote about Balanchine’s Swan Lake, which I saw at NYCB last season, so now seems like as good a time as any… if I can remember it all.
Balanchine, I guess predictably, makes it all about the ballerinas — his “butterflies”. Prince Siegfried hardly figures – -there’s no ball at which he’s to pick a wife, no mental reflection in the forest, no “bird hunting,” no Odile, no Black Swan pas de deux where Odette’s human imposter seduces him leading to tragedy… Just Siegfried meeting Odette at the lake, falling for her, having her taken away from him by the evil von Rothbart and his flock of black swans.
I feel like the focus on the pretty ballerinas eviscerated the story. Prince Siegfried is the protagonist. It’s his story, his inner conflict, his unmet needs, his all too human weakness of character that you identify with, and that leads to tragedy. The story opens with Prince Siegfried at the first of a series of balls, at which he, having just turned 21, is to choose a wife. Beautiful princesses from all over Europe are being presented to him — what a choice! What more could a prince want! But he’s not at peace, for some reason. He’s just not into any of them. Why, he’s not sure, but something’s just not right. So, he decides to leave the first evening’s party early, go out into the woods, near the lake where he often reflects. His friends want to come with him, but no, he’d rather be alone. And then he’s lying by the lake, thinking, reflecting, perhaps having fallen asleep and dreaming, and he sees a beautiful swan. He takes aim with his bow and arrow when suddenly this magnificient creature turns into a woman before his very eyes. He of course becomes mesmerized with her. She — this fanstasy creature — he knows immediately, is his soul-mate.
She sees him, she’s afraid but he tosses the bow and arrow down, tells her not to worry, she tells him what happened to her — that von Rothbart cast a spell on her so that she’s a swan during the day, and can only be human — her true self — at night out by the lake. But the spell can be broken if someone — a sexual innocent, such as himself — pledges eternal love to her and then remains faithful. Of course Siegfried vows that he can do that, right before von Rothbart, who’s been listening in on their conversation, reclaims her for the evening, turning her back into a swan.
The next night at the ball, von Rothbart casts a spell on his daughter, Odile, so that she’ll look just like Odette. They show up at the ball and Sig is completely taken with Odile (in some versions he actually thinks she is Odette, the likeness is so close; in others he just falls for her, human frailty being what it is). A seduction ensues with all those ten thousand fouettes and gigantic, stage-traversing jetes as the climax, and then Odette appears, making it clear either Sig’s been deceived into cheating on her or making him remember his oath of faithfulness, which, either way, he’s now broken, therefore forcing her to live in eternity as a swan and making their love in this life impossible. They go back to the lake, do a tragically beautiful pas de deux and then — in most versions — she kills herself by throwing herself into the water, he follows suit, vR tears his hair out in agony and then we’re shown a vision of Siegfried and Odette together in the afterlife. (In some Kirov and Bolshoi versions Siegfried slays von Rothbart, and the story ends happily, which I find appalingly cheesy).
So, it’s a story of not being able to love who you truly love because of societal constraints — arranged marriage, familial circumstances, governmentally enforced heterosexuality — what have you, along with themes of deception, unfaithfulness, inconstancy, human fallibility, and deep abiding love eventually conquering all those worldly limitations. But Balanchine makes it about this man caught up in this world of ethereal beauties — which is really a ballet cliche.
There are some really beautiful scenes though. Apollinaire Scherr, who I sat next to the night I saw it (and who likes it much more than I), describes well how in the end, the flock of black swans overtakes Odette, tragically separating her from Siegfried. It’s really visually stunning, horrifying — almost like she’s drowning in the tidal wave they create — and you just want to hold your hand up to block it out. Balanchine does get to the action quickly, and he uses the Tchaikovsky score to its fullest — beginning and ending with the familiar competing von Rothbart and Siegfried / Odette themes, while toy swans slide by in a background lake, showing, at the beginning what Odette has been and in the end what she’s been returned to. I do like the sliding toy swans better than ABT’s version, where von Rothbart, in swamp creature form, is shown grabbing human Odette, taking her behind a curtain, then emerging with a swan stuffed animal. There are other commendable things about Balanchine’s version, but I still think truncating Siegfried’s story the way he does turns it into a ballet cliche and deprives it of its power to speak to the human condition. I know people will disagree with me, but those are my thoughts.