swans and the swamp thing

The other night, I joined my sorority’s young alumnae group for an excursion to the ballet. Ballerinas fascinate me: I love their grace, their ability to remain on pointe without toppling, their tutus.

We saw the American Ballet Theatre perform Swan Lake at the beautiful Metropolitan Opera House. I had heard of Swan Lake, but I wasn’t clear on the story. I didn’t spend any time trying to learn the story before the performance because, to be honest, I didn’t think the story really mattered. I assumed the ballet was primarily about watching lovely ballerinas.

I was about 80% correct. For most of the first two acts, I was confused (almost to the point of distraction) because I didn’t understand why there was a man costumed as the swamp thing flailing about on stage when everyone else was dressed as swans (or, at least, in tutus that lent themselves to the suggestion of swans). It was pointed out to me during intermission that the entire story was printed in the program, and I was lost no more. It turns out he wasn’t the swamp thing, but an evil sorcerer who has turned a princess into a swan, for reasons that remain unclear.

As for the whole story: A prince has been instructed that he has to marry because he’s getting too old to be a bachelor, and there is going to be a ball for him to choose a wife. He goes into the woods with a nifty new bow and arrow, and he sees a swan. He decides he wants to shoot said swan – I’m not sure why; I don’t think people eat swan, so maybe he’s just feeling destructive – but it turns into a beautiful woman. (You can see how, without knowing the story, I was confused here. To the untrained audience, it looks as though the prince is going to shoot a ballerina with a bow and arrow but changes his mind when he sees her dance.)

This woman is a princess who has been cursed to be a swan by day and a woman by night. She has been cursed by the evil sorcerer who I mistook for the swamp thing. This curse can apparently be broken if someone will pledge their eternal fidelity to her – but if they do and then break it, she must remain a swan forever.

Our prince falls in love with the princess, and he can’t stop thinking about her during the ball. The evil sorcerer puts on his nicest clothing and attends the ball with his daughter, who is wearing the same costume as the swan princess, except in black. (There’s some obvious symbolism for you: the good princess wears white, the bad girl wears black.) The sorcerer manages to cast some sort of spell over the entirety of the ball – evidenced by all the women wanting to dance with him – and our prince falls victim, pledging his eternal fidelity to the sorcerer’s daughter.

Obviously, this is bad for the swan princess. When the prince realizes his mistake, he laments this to the princess, and they know she will now be a swan forever. She throws herself into the lake. (Boy, am I glad I read the program to understand that scene, or I would have thought she just did a pretty leap off a piece of scenery.) The prince follows suit. The program tells me that this causes the sorcerer to lose all his power, but it appears as though he died a rather flashy and prolonged death on stage.

For more information on the ballet, check out the Wikipedia page.

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