Swan's Way

German choreographer revises a classic to fit his body and psyche

Swan Lakeinvites tinkering. Embedded in its 19th-century elegance, virtuosity, and romantic beauty are several perennially interesting themes: a hero who is unable to distinguish between his true love and an evil clone; humans held in thrall by sorcery; and the pursuit of an ideal. Choreographers ranging from Erik Bruhn and Mats Ek to Matthew Bourne and the Van Krahl Theatre of Estonia have had their way with it. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has spoofed it.

Raimond Hoghe's deconstruction of the classic, a controversial highlight of the 2006 edition of International Dance Festival Ireland (April 21–May 7), is the most austere yet (I saw it in Dublin, where I was teaching a workshop in connection with the festival). Hoghe—a journalist, 10 years a dramaturge for Pina Bausch's Tanzteater Wuppertal, and the creator, with artist Luca Giacomo Schulte, of several theater works—places himself at the center of his latest piece, and his presence shapes and dominates his interpretation.

Hoghe is a small man who walks with a slight stiffness due to a severe spinal curvature. Inevitably, bravely, he places that image against conventional notions of beauty and his studied, minimal movements against received ideas about virtuosity. His production also juxtaposes austerity to the lush flow of excerpts from Tchaikovsky's score for the ballet, played out of order—sometimes by an orchestra on what sounds like a scratchy old record, sometimes (also on tape) by piano alone. At the outset Hoghe clues us in to the downsizing of the ballet by the vision of a tiny toy theater, with scenery (barely visible) from the original production. placed at the back of the black-box Project Space. The tension between disparate elements creates a startling poignancy.

In this production, the black swan and the white swan are symbolized at one point by an exchange of a black T-shirt and a white one between Hoghe and Lorenzo De Brabandere, who seems to be a guardian as well as a kind lover and, sometimes, a slightly threatening presence. A corps de ballet emerges when Hoghe carefully lays out 18 paper cut-outs of swans in orderly ranks. Later, he veils them from sight with tissues. The ice cubes that he places as a border around the performing area exude tiny lakes before he picks them up again.

Hoghe acts as both stage manager and protagonist. After three other performers have entered, one at a time, over a long stretch of music and sat on chairs at the rear of the area, he draws them forward simply by standing face to face with each for a second. The woman (Ornella Balestra) appears to be an accomplished ballet dancer, and at various moments wears a knee-length black tutu or pointe shoes and a black raincoat. The two men, Brynjar Bandlien and Nabil Yahia-Aissa, look more like actors than trained dancers. While standing in the foreground, expressionless, the three offer some of the mime gestures familiar to balletgoers: "I love you," "Marry me," "Die." Balestra ripples an arm. Bandlien's hands make small paddling gestures close to his side. Then Hoghe gets them to sit down again. Against the powerful music, which itself summons up images for anyone who has seen the ballet more than once, the gestures function as a kind of code to unlock emotions that are not enacted on stage.

The three people are like stand-ins, but Hoghe doesn't assign them characters. All three lie on the floor and arch their bodies, flutter their arms, beat their feet together (Hoghe lies beside each of them for a while, as if inhaling Swan Lake). All three, copying him, lie on the floor with tissues over their faces, blowing them gently. And they replace one another in a sequence in which one person gently strokes an ice cube against another's skin. When, somewhat later, Hoghe and De Brabandere work with ice, they try to hold a cube between their faces like a frozen kiss.

There is much putting on and taking off shirts and coats, of laying coats over supine bodies as if dressing paper dolls, of tying a jacket on so it flaps like wings. Early on, Hoghe bares his back and we see the thick swelling on one side of his spine—as rounded as a swan's breast. We don't need that image, however, to sense the effort his movements require, whether he is kneeling crouched over, his arms extending back and upward, or waltzing minimally with a shyly smiling De Brabandere. When the two men stand back to back and De Brabandere arches, leaning against Hoghe, you fear for the much smaller man, but slowly, slowly Hoghe kneels, bearing his tall partner's weight on that compromised back. It's a 32-fouetté moment.

At the end of the two-act work, Hoghe carefully scatters yellow sand upstage. Flour produces a mist. Stripping naked, the choreographer lies face down in the dry lake, arms straining upward behind him, while De Brabandere blows more of the sand over him, and the music reaches its tumultuous, decisive climax.

 
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