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The symbolism of Swan Lake, from stage to screen

Inner turmoil and artistic perfection — By Paola Dicelli

Swan Lake was the first music for a ballet which the Bolshoi Theatre commissioned from Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1877, to accompany the choreography of Julius Wenzel Reisinger. The initial version was judged mediocre at the time, however, it was unearthed thirteen years later by Marius Petipa. If he remains faithful to Tchaikovsky’s intentions, the symbolism of the white swan and the black swan was explored in greater depth by Rudolf Nureyev to give the ballet a more psychoanalytical dimension. That interpretation would later be used by a number of filmmakers as they constructed psychological thrillers while questioning the quest for artistic perfection.   

Several versions of Swan Lake exist, but the one by Rudolf Nureyev — created for the Paris Opera Ballet in December 1984— undoubtedly remains the most Freudian. The choreographer opted to place a male character, Prince Siegfried, at the heart of the narrative to portray the full gamut of his emotions on stage. In the prologue, the dozing prince has a “strange and premonitory” dream just as the synopsis for the ballet indicates. A princess is captured by a bird of prey and takes to the skies with it…a scene that in reality heralds the end of the ballet. In Leonardo da Vinci a Memory of His Childhood, published in 1943, Sigmund Freud writes: “To be a bird is only a disguise for another wish […] in a dream, the desire to fly signifies nothing other than the inner desire to be capable of sexual activities”.

Here, Odette, the white swan, symbolises the perfect woman, the one to which Siegfried must go to, even though he is irremediably attracted to a darker more shameful desire (homosexuality?) represented by Odile, the black swan. This inner turmoil is also exacerbated by Wolfgang, his tutor, and Rothbart, the cruel magician, each in turn a symbol of a Freudian projection of the Superego (reason) and the Id (perversion). This analysis is all the more poignant when we take into account that Tchaikovsky himself was homosexual. Embittered by this, Tchaikovsky wrote at the time in a letter to his brother Modest: “I find that our tendencies are the greatest and most insurmountable obstacle to happiness”. A quote that could equally be applied to Siegfried, who ends up mired alone in the fog of his own consciousness.    

Black Swan avec Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky, 2010
Black Swan avec Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky, 2010 © Collection Christophel / Fox Searchlight Pictures / Cross Creek Pictures

In 2010, Darren Aronofsky directed the film Black Swan, the story of Nina, a dancer at the New York City Ballet who, after accepting the role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, plunges into a profound introspection that ultimately leads to her demise. Even though the ballet staged in the film is not Nureyev's, the director draws inspiration from the choreographer’s Freudian aspirations to turn Nina’s life into a mise en abyme of Swan Lake. At the beginning of the film, the dancer is a young innocent girl who cuddles the stuffed toys in her room and seems withdrawn. She has everything to embody the white swan or rather, on a second level, everything to embody Siegfried. Like him, she often has dreams haunted by a black bird—a representation of her repressed fantasies of rebellion, strength and desire for a woman (Lily, a fellow dancer). Nina in fact seems more like Siegfried’s avatar than the “Black Swan” at the end of the film: at the film’s conclusion, she dies in the costume of the white swan after fighting her morbid impulses. Just like the prince in the ballet, who is left alone and unhappy once the evil has been banished.

But Swan Lake also questions the quest for perfection in an artist, particularly a dancer. In the ballet, that perfection is symbolised by the white swan—an unattainable figure for Siegfried. Furthermore, irrespective of the choreography, there has only ever been one dancer to portray these two swans with diametrically opposed characters. It is a complex interpretation and a rite of passage for any ballerina who dreams of surpassing herself. It is also symbolic of self-denial and a font of inspiration for filmmakers. In Black Swan, Nina is in search of the ideal incarnation and ready to die for it. As such, in the closing scene, after stabbing herself with a piece of glass (while fighting against her inner enemy), she performs the final act, collapses, covered in blood, and murmurs: “That was perfect”.    

Les chaussons rouges avec  Moira Shearer, Michael Powell, 1949
Les chaussons rouges avec Moira Shearer, Michael Powell, 1949 © Collection Christophel / RnB © Independent Producers

Another example can be seen in the 1948 film The Red Slippers by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In that film, Victoria Page is a young ballerina whose performance in Swan Lake is criticised by the director of the ballet. Madly in love, she does not manage to express herself in her art and must choose between her lover and her love for dance... In utter despair, the young girl ends up killing herself by jumping off the balcony of the Opera. Here again, Swan Lake seems to be the driving force of the same passion: to abandon everything for the sake of art, at the risk of losing one’s life.

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