Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “LAC (After Swan Lake)” is a reconsideration—rather than a retelling— of Swan Lake, a well-known story ballet first presented in 19th century Russia. On March 16, 2014, I had the pleasure of seeing Maillot’s work performed by the elegant, athletic, and versatile members of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.
The program began with a video prologue. Though this was unexpected and the mood of the film struck me as a bit odd—think “Dr. Strangelove” meets Martha Graham’s “Appalachian Spring”—the prologue ended up being exceedingly helpful. Using symbolism, props, and pantomime, the five actors in this silent film presented an overview of the plot that would unfold onstage over the next two hours. The prologue’s content both repeated and deviated from the themes of traditional retellings of Swan Lake,—a battle between good and evil, unrequited love, deception, adultery, incest, and a female villain called Her Majesty the Night. Since Maillot’s story was different from the one I already knew, and at the same time not very different at all, my experience watching “LAC” was unlike any of my more recent experiences watching Swan Lake.
This time, instead of focusing exclusively on the performers’ technique and artistry, I had to pay attention to what was going on up there! I had to work to push the traditional plot, characters, and order of events out of my mind. At first, this was frustrating. But, eventually, I found myself enjoying the experience thanks to the dancers, all excellent storytellers, and my recollection of that video prologue. Periodically, I compared the events in “LAC” to those in traditional retellings of Swan Lake, but I never quite missed the original. Moments in the piece indicated to me that Maillot was moved think on the original as well. A few times, the action onstage hearkened back to choreographic motifs, movements, and spatial arrangements found in traditional versions of Swan Lake. My favorite instance of this was Maillot’s reconsideration of the entrance of the swans in Act Two. Maillot’s swans entered with backs crouched they shuffled, feather-covered bottoms first, in a line that snaked from stage left to stage right and back again, gradually bringing them downstage into horizontal lines. This moment was fun to watch, whether or not one recognized Maillot’s brilliant manipulation of traditional versions of this entrance, where the dancers follow a similar path, but enter with temps levé in arabesques and emboîtés.
“LAC” was presented in three acts, each of them chock full of dynamic, clever choreography. Maillot has a knack for using movement to distill a character’s essence: machismo rowdiness in the prince’s friends as they tossed themselves (and their partners!) around; daredevilish spirit in the hunters who narrowly avoided collisions as they somersaulted through the air; hostility and aggression in the swans whose hissing mouths, loudly tapping pointe shoes, and slicing arm and leg movement made it clear that, in this version of the story, they were not on Odette’s side. I was surprised and pleased to notice that Maillot incorporated a number of gestures—mostly pokes, pinches, and prods—that are humorous, and even ribald, by today’s standards. It’s nice to get to laugh at a joke that doesn’t have to be pointed out to you, explained, or considered in historical context.
The costumes, all designed by Philippe Guillotel, were some of the most engaging aspects of this production. The child in me was enthralled with the brilliance of the Queen’s shimmering gold, pleated dress, cheered by the brightness of the hunters’ colorful outfits, and amused by the feather-covered gloves that transformed the ballerinas’ hands into wings. The adult in me couldn’t help but think of the Rolex brand each time I saw the tall, thin crown placed on the Queen’s head, or of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” music video whenever Her Majesty the Night and her leather-clad escorts took the stage. And the dancer in me was unreasonably excited by the sight of colored tights that faded to nude so to match the line of flesh-colored pointe shoes—genius!—and genuinely tensed by the sight of long, slippery fabric skirts that skimmed the floor and wrapped around the legs of dancers en pointe—scary!
There are two elements of this production that I left unsatisfied with: First, I thought that the majority of the onstage illusions lacked polish and skill. It is unreasonable to expect an audience to suspend disbelief in the face of obvious non-magic, like the clearly visible feet or arms of performers who were supposed to be concealed by fabric. The final moment of “LAC” was a clear exception. With a swirl of black fabric the dancers that had just inhabited the stage disappeared and the stage was suddenly empty. I wished that all of the other illusions had been equally spectacular as this, and wondered why they had not. Second, though I found Maillot’s conclusion more reasonable than those in traditional versions of this tragic story, I still do not understand the explanation given for it. The final lines of the program note reads, “We are in front of a lake of tears. But, we can still believe. In what? For example, in joy, because it all began with a kidnapping.” Even considering all that I saw onstage that day, I have no idea know how to interpret that.
All in all, “LAC (After Swan Lake)” was well worth attending. Those two hours of movement and music have left me hoping that someone—perhaps Maillot, perhaps another—will take a 21st century look at even more of yesterday’s story ballets.