Swans, pointe shoes & a touch of Shakespeare
By Lee Hyo-won
Feather-light ballerinas dressed in pure white giving life to lilting movements in perfect unison like a flock of graceful swans — the timeless splendor of “Swan Lake” never grows old.
The Korea National Ballet Company (KNBC) is staging the Tchaikovsky classic through Sunday at Seoul Arts Center, offering local fans something classical after a lineup of modern works.
Unlike the 19th-century Lev Ivanov-Marius Petipa original tragedy, Yuri Grigorovich was forced by communist commissars to produce a happy ending for his 1969 Bolshoi version. He has since showcased a revised rendition featuring an unsettlingly ominous, existentialist finale, but KNBC has opted for the more family-friendly appeal of the Soviet-era piece to celebrate the triumph of love and good over evil.
The handed down tale is about a young prince who dreams of ideal love, which he finds in the bewitched swan maiden Odette. His sworn fidelity for Odette is put to the test when the Evil Genius tempts him by presenting Odile, Odette’s double, during a ball where Siegfield is supposed to choose his bride. When the prince announces Odile as his future wife, a vision of Odette reveals that he has been duped. The Evil Genius tries to stop Siegfield from begging Odette’s forgiveness, but the two lovers manage to reunite, leaping lightly over the forces of evil.
This ballet is not intended for just younger audiences — Odette and Odile personify two opposing sides of femininity with pure and provocative allures, while the Evil Genius is more than a one-note villain who lures Prince Siegfield to the dark side. He is more cunning and psychologically manipulative in his scheme, which is expressed through a dramatic male duo with the young hero in the second act. The happy ending may lack the apotheosis of the Ivanov-Petipa original, but has a delightful touch of Shakespearean drama as it follows the struggles of the prince, a brooding Hamlet of sorts, to defend his ideals.
Mention must also be made of the role of the jester, which is usually excluded from productions staged outside of Russia. The jester brings a mocking character suggestive of Shakespearean farce, and moreover, pushes the limits of dance technique by showcasing 36 consecutive spins.
The beauty of the piece lies in the details. Character dances are choreographed for pointe instead of the usual heel shoes and the rather tame grace of the Ivanov-Petipa version is spiced up with a modern edge and the thrilling energy of Korean dancers. Thrice-seen sequences have also been transformed in a simple, direct fashion by a new turn in the musical phrasing or a variation to the accent.
The ballet also offers more opulent audiovisuals, such as the ballroom scene featuring fancy waltzes and Russian folk dances by soloists.
Choe Yuhui, a guest artist who is a first soloist at the United Kingdom’s Royal Ballet, will appear as Odette and Odile opposite Jung Young-jae, KNBC’s grand soloist, as Prince Siegfield on Wednesday and Friday. Thursday’s production will feature KNBC’s principal dancers Kim Ji-young and Kim Hyun-woong in the two roles, respectively, while Go Hye-joo and Lee Young-cheol will perform Saturday, and Kim Li-hoe and Lee Dong-hoon, will take the stage Sunday.
Tickets cost from 5,000 to 100,000 won. Fifty-percent discounts are available for elementary, middle, high school and college students as well as the physically disabled and families with three or more children. Call (02) 587-6181 for more information.