A swan on the northern prairie is quite a different thing from the tame swans in the park. They are the earliest of the big migratory birds who come through in the spring and fly in smaller groups, but they have the same magical quality of being able to rise into the sky, becoming more enchanted as their wings take them among the clouds. Not all of them make noise (“mute” swans) but those who do (“trumpeter” and “whooper”) are impressive.
I’ve captured wild swans (it was a legal hunting season and we wounded one) and I’ve eaten them. They are fiery, substantial and determined. Held in the arms, they are about the size and weight of human babies. I’ve never seen one in the Blackfeet sacred bundles that often include other waterfowl.
I say all this to anchor a poetic and artistic concept in a reality of circumpolar culture, which is a white (snow), powerful, elusive and very beautiful wild bird. At some point in the Miocene, one branch of the family ended up in Australia where it evolved separately to a black (charred — Australia is a fire-driven continent) bird that holds its neck in a curve instead of the straight-up way of the northern birds. In the 18th and 19th centuries when curious ships prowled the world, black swans were brought back to England and gifted to the Queen. Swans became associated with royalty and the novelty of a black swan paired with white swans was an aesthetic conceit of great charm.
Ballet developed out of European court dancing and depended on the elongation and leaping of dancers, so swans as subject matter was quite natural, especially the long lines of the corps de ballet who sometimes seemed to fly and other times had the choppy gait of waterfowl on land. In the usual Manichean fascination with good/white versus bad/black and with finding “wild” princesses (African or Native American), the plot line pursued elusiveness and evil.
After all this, the phrase “black swan” as simply an unexpected anomaly that is the title of a popular book about economics, which has no relationship whatsoever. But in an equally strange anomaly, a poetic explorer’s discovery was mixed with a recent ballet movie, “Black Swan,” so that all those people out there who never really pay attention, merely knew that there was something important about the idea and so “flocked” to the movie. There they found that historical court dance culture had evolved radically into the celebrity obsessed Manhattan world where torture, madness and love (or sex) mix in our psychologically driven horror film style. So far away from the serene image of the floating swan. Not so far away from a wounded wild swan counter-attacking an attacker.
On YouTube there is a startling cultural conflation of the traditional “Swan Lake” with Chinese gymnastics that has the ballerina en pointe on top of her male partner’s head ! It’s even beyond Pilobolus! Some find it a descration, but I’m always intrigued by cultural synthesis in both arts and religion, because it is so often a kind of access to dreams and assumptions.
Now Mike Dunham of the Anchorage Daily News (firstname.lastname@example.org) tells us about a new development, a version of “Swan Lake” called “Qug’yuq” (Yup’ik for swan) that picks up on the “shape-shifting” tradition that is world-wide: seals who become lovers at the seaside, elusive women who become horses on the prairie, destroying men who turn to grizzly bears. Always everywhere, coyote slipping in and out of tricksy roles. The enchantment of desire with the extra aphrodisiac of voodoo evil.
This version of the story does not depend upon the Jekyll/Hyde of white swan/black swan, but turns to a trickster figure far better known in the arctic: Raven, who wants the Swan for himself. The music is augmented with Yup’ik drumming and singing, the dance with traditional Yup’ik steps, esp. in a village scene, and familiar old Tchaikovsky is nudged over for bits of Mahler. This is HIGHLY sophisticated and eclectic.
But “Swan Lake” has always been that, a skeleton so strong that it can endure any abuse. Dunham notes that Tchiakovsky’s brother rewrote the ballet to create a happy ending. “There have been animated film versions . . . Cheery ‘Swan Lakes.’ Obsessively morbid ‘Swan Lakes.’ ‘Swan Lakes’ set in a Victorian insane asylum. Matthew Bourne’s stupendously successful all-male ‘Swan Lake.’”
To think of the story in a pendantic, academic way, one could refer to what Dunham found: “a folk story written down by Johann Karl August Musaus around 1780.” Collected in much the same spirit as capturing a black swan to give the Queen, I expect. Even more interesting is Musaus’ own story in Jena, Germany. He evidently liked to write satire and had intended to become a preacher, but in those Protestant repressive times he was disqualified because he had been a dancer. Perhaps ‘Swan Lake” is not so much the innocent story about birds and princes as we think it is, so irreproachably upscale and suitable for children. Maybe “Black Swan” returns the dynamics to something like its roots. A satire.
In the Yup’ik version presented by the Alaska Dance Theatre in collaboration with the Eugene, Oregon, Ballet Company, both the Raven (Tulukarusk) and the male lover (Ciuqnaq), are entranced by the beautiful woman, who is made into a Trumpeter Swan by Raven. What happens from there is not disclosed.
Both the producers and the performers are mixed between Yup’ik and Oregon dance world figures. Codie Costello is executive director of Alaska Dance Theatre; Gillmer Duran is Alaska Dance Theatre’s resident choreographer; Ossie Kairaiuak leads the Heritage Center’s drummers and dancers.
I’ll make these principles plain: all culture, art and religion is syncretistic because it is a mimesis of something real, transformed by the traditions and experience of people in a way that has meaning to them, and then possibly RE-transformed by a culture or reality previously unknown but now meaningful. The success of this is determined by the validity of the inner structure and the skill with which the new mimesis is managed.
If I were a choreographer first inventing a dance about swans, I would be divided about whether the arms should imitate the long necks of the birds or the extended and pulsing wings. I would want the wings to be as much weapons (they can bruise you — I know) as flight. But my biggest problem is that I see black and white as thoroughly mixed. I would have to invent gray swans. Of course, the babies ARE gray. So here we are, arrived at the Ugly Duckling who turned out to be a swan.
(Cover Photo: Erikuri)