Finding Love at Swan Lake

When the Kyiv City Ballet came to town, I anticipated something extraordinary was to occur. I am no connoisseur of ballet, though I have been surrounded by and alternately participated in different forms of dance at various times in my life. Enough to blandly imitate, not enough to piercingly critique. My ballroom dance instructor regularly refers to me as a tree—which, I hope, is a reference to stability and not inertia. Yet I am aware that while I wish to possess the agility of Legolas, I likely appear on stage with all of the grace of an Ent.

This only confirms the importance, even for blockish professors, of a life dedicated to the physique as well as to the mind. Dance—and all the best philosophers support me in this—is perhaps the most spiritual of art forms, melding sound and sight, movement and passion, body and spirit. While puritanical naysayers have derided dance as worthless at best and pagan at worst, I prefer to see it as the expression of the divine longing to reach upward toward the heavens by pressing into the human community. Through dance, in the democracy of our limbs and the aristocracy of its motions, we experience the heights of sublimity. Done well, dance requires rhythm, precision, focus and discipline. And discipline, despite its poor reputation today amongst the general population, is one of the truest ways we worship God, ever more so than its antagonist spontaneity. Like liturgy, discipline steadies the bones and evens out the blood, preparing the soul for action.

We rushed to the theatre not as a political statement, certainly, though without a doubt it was a Ukrainian troupe that enriched the evening, infusing our experience with greater meaning because of the present crisis. Even before the ovation, when a quarter of the audience raised their little flags of blue and yellow, I could not help but remember that these dancers were homeless, exiles from their war-torn land. Like many of their Western counterparts, they begin such a tour dancing for art, for expression, for bread. Unlike the rest of us, however, these Kyiv players dance with new purpose, as if their very lives depend upon it—for surely they do—knowing more than most that life and art must continue, not in spite of the chaos but because of it. As the darkness of Diocletian rises, we must respond, like St. Lucia, bearing light and hope.

Which is what we experienced at Swan Lake. To the newcomer, finding a plot through dance can be a challenge, as our eyes are not attuned to doing what our ears do naturally. Not only did this performance make it easy to follow, it accomplished its task by emphasizing beauty over spectacle.

The romance scene in Act II, for example, between Odette and Siegfried is Eros at its finest, a violin come to life, its notes the oars on a sea of arms and legs. Before a chorus of mirrored leaps, pirouettes, and pointes, two bodies flow together in embrace, stretching to the upper limits of anatomy’s reach. To follow the seeming impossible lines and curves fills the spectator’s own body with tension, followed by a slow release when the dancer finds equilibrium. The elegance of such a dance is found in its simplicity, from which emerges its universality. We are all lovers seeking the beloved, all longing for fulfillment in the other’s eyes, lips, and motions. We are all eager to reorder the broken pieces of the world and to recover Eden.

Awe inspiring, too, was the expression of chaos fighting to undermine order. The evil sorcerer Von Rathbart, a malevolent demon, glides on the lake alone and later in mimicry of the prince, reminding us that death waits ever in the wings of our desires and behind the most innocuous of our deeds. His dark dance of Thanatos, more sublime than beautiful, is no less alluring than that of Eros. Yet I was surprised to discover my own sympathy and understanding for the demon. His deceit, tricking Siegfried to proclaim his love for the black swan Odile, provoked in me a natural parental yearning to provide and to protect. For after all, is not Von Rathbart’s desire to heal his own daughter’s curse not a good, even if his means are an evil? It was through the lens of our current international conflict that I thus read this part of the story, seeing the sorcerer as the Russian bear and the white swan as Ukraine. While I cannot condone Putin’s violence, and his aggression against the innocent must be stopped, I found myself hearing anew the desperation of the parent to care for the child, and in it saw the tyrant not merely as a monster to be defeated but as a soul in need of pity.

In the finale, the Kyiv City company opted for the happy ending, where neither Siegfried nor Odette die. She is not drowned in the waves, they are not translated into the heavens, but they remain embodied—their love perpetuating in the flesh as well as the spirit. It was an appropriate dénouement, a proclamation that Ukraine would not be transformed into merely an idea but would remain an idea permanent and whole, stronger and more complete because of the struggle.

As I walked away from the theatre that night, the embers of my imagination were stirred, and are stirred still, by the performance—certain proof of art at the height of its powers. I learned that dance is as transformative as poetry and pottery. I remembered that to adore the beloved is not merely a duty but one of the highest of divine pleasures. And I discovered that to love one’s nation is expected, to love another’s nation is admirable, but to love the demon is an act of holiness. Though I am properly unfit for any of these tasks, awkward in society as in dance, I pray for the strength to do so with wisdom, wit, and joviality.

3 thoughts on “Finding Love at Swan Lake

  1. Writing about dancing is hard, as it is a form of art on the visual spectrum, and words often can’t do it justice. Your post did it though, I have read it wit great pleasure, as you write so beautifully, and it makes me want to go see Swan Lake as well. I have always found ballet a fascinating form of art, but you voice it’s spiritual, worshipping quality in a way I have subconsciously felt it, but never fully realised it. The ending seems a good alteration for this dreadful affair, and I can see how the whole story got an extra level of meaning because current events. That is the sign of true quality in art I think, wether it be literature, painting, music, dance, or other forms; that it speaks to you emotionally, that it means something to you.
    Thank you for this, looking forward to reading more from you!

    1. Thank you very much for your kind words. Yes, you are correct: I do find writing about dance to be difficult, translating movement into language. When seeing it as a form of worship, however, the Word gives voice. Thanks again!

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