A Swan Lake


A Swan Lake ballet. Music by Mikael Karlsson (with quotes from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake); orchestration by Mikael Karlsson and Michael Atkinson. Choreography and scenography by Alexander Ekman. The world premiere was presented April 26, 2014 by The Norwegian National Ballet at at the Oslo Opera House; the HDVD was filmed in May 2014. Stars Jan Gunnar Røise (The Artist), Fridtjov Såheim (The Producer), Clair Constant (The Ornithologist), Elisabeth Teige (The Diva), Philip Currell (Siegfried), Camilla Spidsøe, Yaniv Cohen, and Yoshifumi Inao (BBC Birds), Camilla Spidsøe (White Swan), Melissa Hough (Black Swan), Yaniv Cohen, Yoshifumi Inao, Aarne Kristian Ruutu (Solo Men), Emma Lloyd and Kaloyan Boyadjiev (Beach Party duet), Catharina Chen, Lasse Rossing, and Berger Iver Ferder (Band). Children of the Norwegian National Ballet School also appear. Per Kristian Skalstad conducts The Norwegian National Opera Orchestra. Costumes by Henrik Vibskov; lighting by Tom Visser; sound design by Mikael Karlsson and Alexander Ekman; video projections by T.M. Rives; directed for the screen by Jeff Tudor; producers were Adrienne Liron and Anne Røthing. Released 2014, disc was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling and has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound. Grade: B

A Swan Lake is a contemporary dance/theater piece in 3 Acts. Act 1 is called "1877 (more or less)." 1877 was the year the Tchaikovsky Swan Lake was first danced. Act 2 is called "137 years later." This would be 2014, the year A Swan Lake was first splashed. So if this were to be revived in 2015, the name of Act 2 would be adjusted. Act 3 is called "427 years later." It and the curtain calls last 3 minutes and 33 seconds, which would seem to be appropriate for an Act 3. The original music is heavy with percussion and mysterious sounds while quoting a lot directly or via inspiration from the famous  Tchaikovsky score.

From what I've told you already and the keepcase artwork, you know what to expect from this show: all kinds of references (logical or surreal) to other material, insider jokes, surprises, inventions, and general craziness. Most viewers likely will either find this really neat or, in the alternative, insufferably boring. To help you decide which camp you might be in, I will give you a least one screenshot from most  of the 11 scenes (my count) described by name in the keepcase booklet. (At this point, I will not tell you what I personally think about all this because, as a reporter, part of my job is to suffer.)

Act 1 (which has not a drop of water in it) is a kind of prologue which (similar to Ariadne auf Naxos) sets the scene for a performance in Act 2 dealing with a lake and swans. Our initial screenshot is from Track 3 on the disc called "A village." The village is populated with various stereotypes like a single mom shown below. She mostly goes about in a daze, but is quite capable of erupting into fantastic dance moves:

I've known lots of single moms, but never a man in drag:


The villagers live in a single house with many doors, and there is an opera diva (Elisabeth Teige) who goes about singing scraps of arias which were discarded by Puccini and later uncovered at a garage sale:

An artist (Jan Gunnar Røise) lives in the village. In Track 4 ("What's the story?") the artist dreams of making a musical about swans. Here he is in a swan pose as he makes a pitch to a producer:

The producer (Fridtjov Såheim) is skeptical. He says the public would be more interested in a musical about horses. Now getting ideas like this across in dance pantomime would be impractical, so the dancers here speak, with their own accents, in American slang but sometimes also in a British manner. It's just another example of  English hegemony in international industry and culture. Sorry, no subtitles. I speak native American and I have trouble with the dialogue here. If your English is a second language, you may get frustrated:

In Track 5 ("The story"), a book falls from the heavens with a tale about Prince Siegfried, Rothbart, and swans. So now our musical is one step closer to reality:

The producer orders research. In Track 6 ("A swan documentary"), the artist studies swans and ways in which humans can imitate them:

Experts are brought in for Track 7 ("The ornithologist informs"):

In Track 8 ("Finale") the musical jells. We see a parody of the Petipa choreography with all the villagers dancing as the white corps. Mikael Karlsson quotes aggressively from Tchaikovsky at this point and the result is quite amusing. We anticipate, of course, that what we will see in Act 2 is as far away from the scene below as that scene is from the original production of Swan Lake in 1877:

We move next to Act 2, Track 9 ("Flocking") with the water scenes that got the folks in Oslo so excited. But first we should be reminded that thrashing around in water on a stage is not new with Alexander Ekman. Why, we can show this even in the tiny world of HDVD. Here, for example, is a water-fight shot from the dance movie Pina:

And there has even been a water-logged production of the opera Katia Kabanova with up to 27 Katia ghosts available to drown on command:

But Ekman maybe does get credit for being the first to put an entire dance corps in the drink for a whole Act of fast action. Here you see the special shoes, kneepads, and elbow pads Ekman had to invent:

And here the concussion-saving head gear:

Nobody in Oslo had seen anything like this:

Now the shirts come off:

Underwater breakdancing:


After the corps does its best imitating a flock of swans, we get combat between Odette (Camilla Spidsøe, called The White Swan) and Odile (Melissa Hough, called The Black Swan) in Track 10 ("Black meets White"). Odette tries to show compassion:

But if you ever get close to a swan, you will correctly sense that the bird knows nothing about compassion. The swan is a dangerous critter with its long neck and fierce beak:

With Track 11 ("A beach party"), I think Ekman is running out of ideas; we start to see filler with stage musicians and silly props like hundreds of toy rubber ducks. First they pee in the water:

Then they drink it in this tableau inspired by Roman fountains:

Can you guess what's going to happen next?

After the lights come back on, the Diva tries to make amends for electrocuting the corps:

Act 2 ends with Track 11 ("Finale"). It's all new and actually has some good music and choreography:

Of yes, there's an Act 3, but I will not spoil that for you. Instead, here's a trivia question. There are 3 characters in the cast called the "BBC Birds." What are the BBC Birds?

Now to a grade. This is a strange show, and I have trouble getting excited about it. That would suggest a "C" grade. Still, the production values are high and everything, including the video by Jeff Tudor, is well-done. So I would be inclined to give this a "B." Oops, the lack of English subtitle hurts, which suggests a "B-." But on the other hand, I think I should be sensitive to our friends in Norway. Norway is one of the richest and successful countries on earth with a keen appetite for European high culture. But because their population is small, the Norwegians have not contributed that much to the fine-arts pool. Here they have come up with something distinctive, so I'll not be snide: Grade "B."