Alastair Macaulay delivered the first face-to-face DANSOX lecture of 2022 against a background of loss and tragedy.  The loss was the death of the critic Clement Crisp at the age of 95; the tragedy, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.  Macaulay dedicated his lecture to the memory of the former, and  acknowledged his initial difficulty in speaking to a topic that might have seemed trivial against the background of the latter. 

He then delivered a talk that proved quite the opposite.  Taking inspiration from Arlene Croce’s assertion in 1973 that ‘Swan Lake is not a drama about birds – it’s a drama about freedom’, Macaulay cogently argued that it is a ballet about power and subjugation; bondage and liberation; trust and betrayal, which extends beyond the personal tragedies of Odette and Siegfried into the wider social and political domain.

Swan Lake, which Crisp described in 2009 as ‘this most popular, most traduced of ballets’ is so widely danced, often in difficult such conditions by touring companies on punishing schedules, that it can seem hackneyed or even somewhat ridiculous.  Using archive photographs and film footage, Macaulay drew on his extensive knowledge and personal communications with the choreographer and dance historian Alexei Ratmansky, to show that this view is mistaken.

Ratmansky’s reconstruction of Swan Lake for Ballett Zürich revealed that the Swan Maidens are women.  They belong to a complex and hierarchical society, reflecting the ranks within a ballet company.  Their fate depends upon the fate of Odette, and their resistance echoes the nineteenth century preoccupation with ‘liberty or death’.  Odette has agency: she decides to trust Siegfried, and he betrays her, evoking another nineteenth century obsession, adultery.  Macaulay’s account of the origins of the ballet drew out its link to contemporaneous myth and romanticism, and he played the musical motif from Wagner’s Lohengrin that Tchaikovsky quotes in his theme for the swans.

For me, one of the highlights of the evening was the chance to compare and contrast interpretations by different ballerinas, discovering connections and differences between them.  We saw the pure classicism of Fonteyn alongside footage of Natalia Makarova, Zenaida Yanowsky, Viktorina Kapitonova, and Marianela Nuñez.  Through this, Macaulay demonstrated that Swan Lake is more than a love story or psycho-sexual drama.  His analysis of Odette’s pas de deux with Siegfried as the expression of her doubts, fears and vacillation in the face of a momentous choice, was particularly pertinent in light of the international situation that overshadowed the evening.

Swan Lake was in effect a political asset of the Soviet Union, with foreign heads of state regularly taken to see it at the Bolshoi.  According to Maya Plisetskaya, Nikita Kruschev said of watching it too often, ‘After that, at night, I dream of white tutus alternating with tanks.’  A recording of the ballet came to be repeatedly broadcast at times of national tension.  The day after Macaulay’s lecture, the last remaining independent Russian TV station, Dozhd, went off air.  The news team said goodbye to viewers, with the words ‘No to war,’ then cut to footage of Swan Lake.

Maggie Watson

9th March 2022

You can watch the whole of Alastair Macaulay’s lecture on the DANSOX YouTube channel here