All About Odette, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Queen

Posted June 12, 2018 9:24 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — How seriously should we take “Swan Lake”? It features a virtuous but wronged heroine, Odette, and her sophisticated nemesis, Odile, two roles generally played by one ballerina. White Swan versus Black Swan!

Why does its hero, Prince Siegfried, choose doom twice over in picking these two? Like the far more melodramatic 2010 film “Black Swan,” the ballet is a cousin of those midcentury women’s films pictures where Bette Davis or Greer Garson play two women with identical looks but opposed manners. Though Siegfried meets a number of perfectly eligible, straightforward women, they’re not for him.

Like many fairy tales, “Swan Lake” can be profound. (It returns to repertory at American Ballet Theater on Monday, in Kevin McKenzie’s production loosely based on the 1895 St. Petersburg staging.) It can show that what lures Siegfried to these two heroines isn’t just their beautiful unavailability or their physical similarity. He’s also drawn to their grand complexity: especially that of the Swan Queen, Odette. Nowhere else do the classic ballets of the 19th century achieve the psychological depth to be found here; nowhere else do they achieve such tragic heights.

Please note: Siegfried doesn’t fall for a swan, though this is where the story grows mysterious. He sees the swan first, then takes aim and prepares to shoot. Swans, to him, are for hunting.

The hunt, however, leads to love. The being that was a swan now takes the stage, transformed: a woman, a ballerina. Seeing her (and miming “She’s beautiful”), he hides.

Thinking she is alone, she starts to show her poignant loveliness. Then Siegfried appears. Terrified, she runs from this hunter, wheeling in huge arcs, like a swan taking to the air.

Finally, after pursuing her around the stage, he shows he means no harm. She then explains — in traditional mime gestures (Ballet Theater’s production preserves most of these) — that she is the queen of the swan maidens. A sorcerer (Baron von Rothbart) transmogrified her into swan form. At night she regains her human form.

Only true love can save her from the sorcerer’s spell. But the story specifies only that it be a man’s love for her. What Odette craves is freedom. Siegfried’s prompt reaction is to declare his love: He has found a beauty he can rescue.

Beautiful, anguished, remote, Odette becomes one of the great Romantic symbols of the longing for redemption. Though she’s human, she’s haunted by swan form. Her arms often move with the powerful shapes of swan wings; her feet flutter like wingtips; now and then, her head and neck preen, swannishly. She opens out into big swan contours, trying to take wing. Swan imagery in “Swan Lake” works several ways. Odette’s swan condition is what she hopes to leave behind forever — but can she ever shake it off? And does she really want to? For swan form is also the known zone to which she continually retreats for comfort. She’s the most profoundly diffident of heroines.

Yet she’s also a monarch; she rises to heroism. When Siegfried’s fellow huntsmen take aim at her swan-maiden companions, she runs in, bravely interposing her body to shield her flock. (If you’re too logical, you wonder why the man can’t see that these are women, not swans. But “Swan Lake” allows for both possibilities.) The men refrain. Odette thanks them.

Every ambiguity in this scene multiplies when Odette rejoins Siegfried. At once she gives off conflicting signals. She arrives as if at his call — but then she folds herself at his feet, hiding her face from him: a swan withdrawn as if in the nest.

Throughout the adagio that follows, Siegfried opens her up and out; she keeps withdrawing, fending him off, falling away from him. At times she seems protean, changing shape again and again in his arms as if to elude him. His devotion grows more and more impressive.

The crucial moment comes when Siegfried chooses, for once, not to follow her. Odette has retreated to a corner that we associate with the sorcerer, whose mysterious power over her continues in his absence. Now, however, she decides to turn and rejoin Siegfried. In what follows, the solo voices of violin and cello intertwine; it has been called the most beautiful moment in ballet.

Certainly it’s the most intimate moment in “Swan Lake.” As Odette arrives in front of Siegfried, he folds those winglike arms of hers protectively around her waist as she stands in front of him on one point; tenderly now he rocks her from side to side. The proximity of their bodies, and the way her neck cranes back toward him, show that she has found her haven.

Yet this dance isn’t just about these two people. The corps de ballet of swan maidens forms a passionate accompaniment. It’s implied that their fates are bound up with Odette, even that they are supplicants. Hope and fear are wonderfully shared by both heroine and group.

In the next act, Siegfried meets Odette’s look-alike, Odile. Please note: She’s not a swan and, until the 1940s, was never dressed in black. She isn’t a demon either — she’s a fiction. She’s the daughter of von Rothbart, whose magic has made her into a perfect simulacrum of Odette.

Although her resemblance to Odette is what compels Siegfried, we can’t help feeling that he falls for her partly because she seems available, inviting, as Odette did not. Nonetheless her scintillating body language — extroverted where Odette was introverted — soon shows that she too is elusive.

Odile tantalizes (she can even quote Odette’s swan imagery) — until he vows love and marriage. Then she laughs, before vanishing out of his life forever. Poor Siegfried is tragic: The two women in the universe he loves — and thinks are the same — are the two he cannot have.

Now, by betraying Odette, he has condemned her to endless swan captivity. How the ballet ends varies from one production to another, but in the 1895 one (made vividly melodramatic at Ballet Theater) Odette and Siegfried choose death: The only realm in which they will now find love.



‘Swan Lake’

June 18-23 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Manhattan.