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My Second Time at the Ballet: Swan Lake
March 18, 2019

From Swan Lake all I knew was Tchaikovsky’s most famous melody, and I’d been to a ballet just once, when I saw The Nutcracker, a Christmas classic for over 50 years.

I’d been warned: it wasn’t a traditional treatment of Swan Lake – a fairy tale of German origin – that I’d be attending, but a story transposed to the Russian Imperial Court in the late 19th century, in the composer’s own time.

The musical prologue creates a dreamy atmosphere conducive to introspection. The enormous Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier curtain is closed. The focus is completely on the music. In the orchestra pit I sense the musicians, even though I can’t see them. I really enjoy this moment: being purely in the music, with no distractions. I can concentrate on listening to it.

The moment doesn’t last long. The curtain rises on an opulent ballroom. I’m impressed by the gigantic sets, and by the number of performers and characters (ballerinas, dancers, tsar, queens, guards, priests) who dance in every sense, before my eyes. These are 72 artists from the Polish National Ballet, not counting the young extras from Montreal.

It’s a waltz: I recognize the three-quarter-time signature. In this tableau you don’t know where to look, there’s so much going on: ballerinas in their tulle take to the air, borne by dancers at their service. And that’s my big surprise: the ballerinas are the main heroes of the show. The spotlight is on them. No doubt I’m naïve and should have been expecting as much, but I’m struck by it. Their solos come one after the other: numerous, precise, and eagerly awaited by the audience, who applaud these awe-inspiring performances every two minutes. It’s a kind of classical-dance rap battle. During the soldiers’ choreography, I even thought I could make out some hip-hop and some gumboot! And then I understand that the storyline is in fact a pretext for dance that is sometimes classical but also something more modern, and for the abilities of these athletes. Because quite obviously these are athletes, in perfect control of their art. Their tools are their bodies, finely animated by their guide, the music. Tchaikovsky’s is moving and exact, composed like lacework, and the musicians are called on to express joy, magic, desire and nostalgia. The conductor oversees it all, making sure that the music is played at the pace of the ballerinas on stage. Swan Lake turns out to be a stunning ballet, a treat for the eyes and ears. And I’ll be back!

By Félix Delage-Laurin

The Wilis in The Age of Tinder
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Illustration of a ballerina in Giselle by Amélie Grenier