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After the recent Kennedy Center Honors, I was reading the articles about each honoree in Washington Post. The article regarding Natalia Markarova  credits her with saying, “Technical things are getting more mechanical…Take Swan Lake, the Black Swan Pas de Deux. Now, my goodness, they’re turning not just 32 fouettes…but double or triple pirouettes. And what is fouetter in French? It means ‘to whip.’ That is characteristic of Odile, cruelty and attack. It is artistic point…And if you change it for just pirouettes, you change the meaning, to no meaning.”

NATALIA MAKAROVA & ANTHONY DOWELL IN SWAN LAKE – Photo by Max Waldman

My mind has been whirling about this for the last few days and I would love to have some discussion about everyone’s thoughts on this comment. To begin with, I started to think about the two versions of Swan Lake that I personally own on DVD and have watched a few times. The first features Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn  I know that it probably isn’t fair to compare them to anyone, but I also have the American Ballet Theatre’s version featuring Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella. I much prefer Fonteyn’s performance over Murphy (and I am not sure Corella even holds a candle to Nureyev, but really is that a surprise?).

Whenever I watch Odile dance I am always waiting for those turns and not necessarily to see if the dancer can do it—I know they can do it, they wouldn’t have the part if they couldn’t do it—but I want to see Odile kick some a**.  For some reason I never made the connection of fouette translating to whip, but when I read that statement by Markova everything suddenly made sense. In essence, Odile is whipping Siegried and the fouettes are not simply trick ballet, but making a statement about why she is there and the type of person she is.

I have never actually counted the fouettes in either of my copies of Swan Lake, so I decided it was about time. Murphy does not do 32, she does about 24 with a lot of turns in between; she probably does do more than 32 revolutions. When I counted Fonteyn she only did 28 (not to be too forgiving, but in the version I have she was 48; Murphy was 26). That made me think; does anyone actually do 32? Yes, Natalia Markarova. And, boy, does she kick a**. Since I haven’t seen her entire version of Swan Lake I need to track it down because I think she may hold something over the others. In addition to Markarova, I also found a clip of Maria Alexandrova, who intersperses front attitude turns into the fouettes, which did not work for me at all. It did seem a little harder than the extra revolutions that Murphy did, but I don’t think attitude turns work for Odile at all. Attitude turns are almost too pretty to really work along with the fouettes.

Natalia Markova as the Black Swan

I myself have never actually done 32 fouettes in the studio, much less in a full-length ballet. I can remember being a teenager and during our summer program (it wasn’t called an intensive quite yet) we would have a little down time in between classes. I remember a few of us trying to “out fouette” each other and attempt 32, but I am doubtful that we even made it into the teens.

Recently, I have heard rumblings that 32 fouettes isn’t really challenging anymore. Nowadays, dancers can do so much more. Here is the first thing I want to know; is it really possible that 32 fouettes (particularly when performed in the second act of a full length ballet in which one dancer is playing two parts) is considered easy? I have never danced Swan Lake and I am not a professional dancer, but I don’t understand how they can be easy. Perhaps I am simplifying but, I have always considered pirouettes to be easier than fouettes, so are more pirouettes or interspersing pirouettes with fouettess really harder? Yes, you are going faster so it looks trickier, but is it harder? The last time I did more than a double pirouette was more than a decade ago, but I remember the feeling of doing more than two as being almost like floating and I was in a zone; whereas having to whip my leg out for a fouette was hard and not so intuitive. Of course I am remembering something I did as a teenage student a long time ago. So I am not asking this in a rhetorical way. I cannot do 32 fouettes or 32/42 pirouettes and I would love to know; is 32 fouettes really so easy that it needs to be altered with extra revolutions or attitude turns? Do you think not doing the 32 fouettes changes Odile’s purpose in the ballet?

I am not sure if the fouettes make the difference or if it is something more, but just that clip of Markarova seems superior to the others. I have never been a huge Markarova fan, but when she finishes the fouettes she seems so in control, so confident, so Odile. None of the others have the oomph that she has and none of the others do just a straight 32 fouettes (Fonteyn comes the closest and she does do straight fouettes she just doesn’t quite make it to 32).

Sometimes I believe there is an inclination of younger generations to want to discredit the older generation and say they are better than the previous, to prove themselves by negating what the previous generation accomplished.  In film, people often write off silent films or black and white films as being primitive, but, in reality, some of the most beautiful, genius work was created within those constraints; not having sound or color was in no way a negative. It is often stated that if silent films had lasted for a decade longer than the art of film would be significantly stronger. I think not learning from those films has stalled many contemporary filmmakers. Not giving credit where credit is due inevitably hurts you. Imagine if you met an artist who wrote off Michelangelo or Monet or Picasso? I wonder if the same can be said of altering those 32 fouettes. There is something about that leg coming out and whipping around 32 times. Sometimes a piece of art reaches a peak where it just needs to be respected. And just like Casablanca should never be remade, I think Odile should always do 32 fouettes, what do you think?

Written by Chelsea Wayant

Chelsea Wayant

Chelsea Wayant is an independent filmmaker and educator living and working in the Southeastern American town of Greensboro, North Carolina. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a BFA in film production and from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a terminal MFA in film and video production.

Throughout her career she has worked in all three forms in her field: the narrative, the documentary, and the experimental film. Regardless of the form her work has always explored the portrayal of women both in front of and behind the camera. Thematically her films most often involve women as central characters and often explore the visage of a dancer.