HOW TO TELL A
uses a number of different devices in telling its story and establishing
its characters. Most obvious among these is the use of formal
miming using the gesture language established by long usage in
classical ballet. Long passages of dance are broken up using
this device, and it serves to advance the action.
Telling a story through mime
For example, in Act I, the Princess-Mother
enters and, through mime, tells her son to give up his merrymaking
and join the others in the castle, for soon, six prospective
brides will come and one must be selected by Siegfried as his
Mother: I (right hand pointing
toward the breast, hand open) ask (both hands clasped
together, extended toward Siegfried) you (left hand extends
toward Siegfried, hand open, palm up) this party (sweeping
gestures right and left while looking toward guests) not
(hands cross and recross one another at waist level, while shaking
the head "no").
(three steps right, raising and lowering the right arm in an
arc) six (count off on the fingers of the right hand 1-2-3-4-5,
then rotate the hand and extend the index finger 6 [note how
the rotation of the hand and the extension of the finger makes
an Arabic numeral 6 in the air. This gesture may be the origin
of the numeral]) beautiful women (the right hand, open,
circles the face) come (both arms sweep from shoulder
height, down and to the left). You (see above) promise
(right hand extends almost straight up, two fingers pointing
up) marry (right hand closed, point with index finger
to ring finger of left hand, held at waist level,
(NOTE: this mime sentence is the
most important in the ballet, being repeated in various forms
by Odette, Siegfried, and Von Rothbart)
It is also a good thing to notice
that this language was codified basically in 17th- and 18th-century
France, so its sytax and grammar are in old-fashioned French.
The main verb is usually at the end. A question inverts the order
of the words, as:
Rothbart (in Act III, tricking
the Prince into betraying Odette): You marry promise.Well?
(open arms, palms up at chest level, leaning toward Siegfried)
In Act II, there is a long mime
monologue for Odette that lays out why she is there, and the
nature of her curse:
Odette: I Queen (right hand
circles top of head outlining a crown) Swan (arms rise
and fall in a ribbon-like port de bras, imitative of wings).
(point to one eye, then the other with index finger) lake
(points to lake painted on backcloth).
(make a cradle with both arms, as if holding a baby) wept
(both hands traces tears running down cheeks)
Over there (takes a step in the direction of Von Rothbart's
castle) evil man (both hands, fists clenched, raised high
and shaken) me carried away (make a seizing gesture with
both hands, and pull toward body).
I Queen Swan but (right hand extended up, index
finger pointed, other fingers toward "listener")
one me loves (both hands open, pressed over heart)
one me promise marry
I Queen Swan not.
Siegfried: I Queen honor
(bow from the waist)
I you love
I promise... (stepping
forward, right hand with index and middle fingers extended)
Enter Von Rothbart
Rothbart: You here why?
These mime sequences are not supposed
to be intrusions into the dance structure, but their execution
is supposed to be almost in the form of dance by themselves.
This danced mime quality was lost for a long time, and recent
restagings have sometimes sought to recapture this style of miming.
speak more of this matter in The Nutcracker, where mime
is an integral part of the Act I choreography.
Telling a story through
Another means of conveying character
and ideas about them comes from accent and emphasis in the dance
vocabulary itself. For example, Odette's
distinctive "swan" port de bras is done softly, with
an almost boneless look to the arms. Odile's port de bras is
done more violently, emphasizing power and strength. Likewise,
the Swan Queen's pas de bourree suivi (connected pas
de bourrees - a long series of them done traveling) are delicate
and gentle, while the impostor's are intense and hammer-like.
Margot Fonteyn used to have a device
that she used in this line at the end of Act II when she bourreed
toward the upstage left corner, beating her "wings";
then, as she reached about up left center, would transition to
the "boneless" port de bras, tighten down on her bourrees
and glide off into the up left wing at the same time the Queen
Swan figure appeared, tracking along the backdrop. Everybody
could see how it was done, but the house usually went wild!
Some parts of the story of Swan
Lake are told through a device that's part step, part mime.
For example, in the pas de deux in Act II (once danced with Benno
as a friendly onlooker), Siegfried dips Odette low to the ground.
This was a step-gesture for "kiss." Classical ballets
were not realistic, and ordinary expressions of affection or
passion were not choreographed.
It is further no accident of plot
that the lovers obtain release from evil by drowning. The metaphor
here is to baptism, and the newly-cleansed souls are seen in
new form, ascending to blessed realms, sanctified by their sacrifice
and the immersion in water.
The original ending, in which Odette
chooses to die in human form and Siegfried chooses to die with
her, was considered a happy ending by its original audience.
Good had triumphed over evil. Odette had found someone who loved
her enough to die for her, and that selfless love released the
Swan-Maidens from their curse and destroyed Von Rothbart. The
two lovers would be together in Paradise.
Read about some of the themes
and social background for Swan Lake
or go back to Swan