Ballet Philippines’ ‘Swan Lake’ – The Weight of Expectations
I went to see Ballet Philippines’ production of Swan Lake, and it was an eye-opening experience. It was my first time to see this venerable ballet, but I didn’t do any research beforehand, which in hindsight I probably should have. You see, I usually try to approach shows with as clear a mind as possible and with no preconceptions, so I can really experience it. But it turns out that I did have subconscious expectations, which inevitably led to some disappointment.
Because how can you not have expectations about Swan Lake? It’s a classic that’s 140 years old (!), and is considered the apotheosis of any ballet company and any ballerina. It’s got to be because of those famous 32 fouettés, where a ballerina has to turn on one foot, en pointe, while the other whips around, in place, 32 times! Then there’s the music. Tchaikovsky is considered one of the best Romantic composers, and his music is revered. Anyone who ever talks about Swan Lake speaks of it in such awestruck tones that it’s impossible not to get swept up.
It’s the story of Odette, a beautiful young woman who was cursed by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart to become a swan by day and a human by night. Because he’s crazy like that. The only way she can be freed from the curse is if a good man swears loyalty to her forever. One day the handsome Prince Siegfried sees Odette in the forest, and he’s mesmerized by this swan turning into a beautiful woman before his very eyes, and he swears his undying love for her. You’d think this would solve all Odette’s problems, but Von Rothbart has other plans. He enchants another swan maiden named Odile to look exactly like Odette and to seduce the prince. Siegfried thinks Odile and Odette are the same person, and when he gives in to Odile’s charms and proposes to her, this is considered as a betrayal of Odette, which keeps Von Rothbart’s curse alive. That sneaky rat.
I went into it not realizing that I fully expected majesty, pomp and circumstance. Ballet Philippines’ prologue was indeed amazing, showing Odette alone in a forest as she gets enchanted by Von Rothbart. They used a translucent screen to show Odette growing wings and transforming into a swan, and this piece of stage magic left me so amazed and stupidly wondering where the screen was situated – was it the background showing the digital image of the wings? Was it a hologram? How did they do it? (The screen was in front of the stage.)
And even though the music was canned (the orchestra only performed on selected dates), it was Tchaikovsky, and canned or not, it was soaring, melodious, and awesome. The kind that makes you feel like your heart and chest are expanding because the music is just so damn marvelous.
There’s a well-known part in Swan Lake called the Cygnets’ Dance, where four ballerinas dance while holding hands the entire time, which as you can imagine requires an immense amount of skill as well as perfect timing. I loved this part in the show because the dancers did a really good job and moved together like one unit.
But everything else about the show had me wanting a bit more. Not knowing the details of the ballet, I based everything on the playbill, which said that the first act would show the prince with his friends. But these so-called friends were wearing costumes that were more appropriate for peasants than nobles or courtiers. The fabrics and colors looked faded, which gave the impression that everything on stage was washed out. The costumes bothered me so much that I found it hard to appreciate the dancing of the company. Which I should have, because the first act had the famous Pas de Troix with the prince’s best friends. The only saving grace was soloist Victor Maguad, who managed to look graceful yet masculine in his leaps and turns. In fact, Maguad was my favorite dancer in this production, even more than the guest artists who danced Siegfried and Odette/Odile – Joseph Phillips and Candice Adea.
Usually Ballet Philippines’ set design is perfect. But for some reason, it made the stage look small. Maybe it was the projection screen and the images they used, which, instead of conveying scale and grandeur, had the opposite effect.
Swan Lake is all about the vulnerability of Odette as the Queen of the Swans, and the technical skill and power of that seductress Odile. I mean, is there any bird more graceful, elegant, and ultimately, more tragic than a swan? (I guess tragic because there are a lot of fairy tales telling the story of swans who, for some reason or other, are doomed. Is it because they look sad, which gives a sense of tragedy, which makes them look more beautiful?) Maybe in any other show, Adea’s performance would have been great. And not to take away from all the effort that I’m sure Adea and the rest of the company put into it. I mean, this is coming from someone who can barely walk without stumbling on her own feet. But it goes back to the whole idea that ‘It’s Swan Lake‘! Probably the greatest ballet of all time!’ So the ballerina has to turn in the performance of her life. And I don’t know if I just lost my concentration in Act III with those 32 fouettés, but I didn’t notice when it happened. Shame on me.
Initially I left the theater feeling drained from unmet expectations. But looking back now, I realize that even a less than perfect show is still an amazing experience. I’ve been lucky enough lately to see all these amazing ballets, and Ballet Philippines now holds a special place in my heart, so basically I will love anything they do. They have their performances at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which has to be my favorite theater. Have you seen their chandeliers? I can’t stop taking pictures of them. Then there’s the winding carpeted staircase which leads to the main lobby. The balconies give you an amazing view of the lobby and the people mingling about. It’s such an amazing yet homey atmosphere that indulges all my little girl fantasies of dressing up for the theater.
Those blasted 32 fouettés sent me to YouTube to see if it can really be done. (It can! Yulia Makharina of the Kirov Ballet did it, and she was spectacular. Look it up!) And for the first time ever, I watched an entire ballet online, which I never used to do because I thought it took away from the experience. Though it’s true that nothing beats a live show, it still gave me a new appreciation for ballet and removed any lingering feelings of intimidation I had about it being too high-brow. Bottom line, ballet is beautiful. I’m sure there will be other productions of Swan Lake to come, and I can’t wait to see it again.