Swan Lake Solo
For a Ukranian dancer to take on Russia’s most emblematic classical ballet by herself stands as a highly political act. But don’t be mistaken, Olga Dukhovnaya isn’t much of a conventional ballerina in her Swan Lake Solo. Wearing a black leotard, large sequin pants and sneakers, she sucessively subverts iconic scenes from the original piece with energetic jumping. She’s not exactly on her own though: the mysterious moonlight ambience is set by front-row spectators wearing head torches, while Tchaikovsky’s score develops discordant electro vibes. She eventually needs dancer Alexis Hedouin’s neon white tracksuits and unexpressiveness to draw a contrast with her dark outfit and perform athletic lifts from the famous pas de deux.
For once, the most interesting part of the show is the interval, during which Dukhovnaya shares historical facts about the ballet’s non-stop broadcast in USSR in times of crisis. Given the current context, her defiant attitude is deeply meaningful. But if the concept of the performance sounded revolutionary, the outcome was substantially basic.
A young woman crouches in an icy light. Audience members sway gently as the first chords of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake are heard. The difference is that the circumstances surrounding this performance of the iconic ballet have radically changed. The music flows into modern dubstep, the cold lights are provided by headlamps worn by the spectators (an engaging touch, making us part of the performance) and the woman is wearing black sequined trousers instead of white feathers. With fierce, angry gestures she makes it known to the world that she is ready to revolt against her oppressors.
In Swan Lake Solo, Ukrainian dancer-choreographer Olga Dukhovnaya dusts off and casts away the more than a century-old interpretive framework superimposed on this famous and most Russian of ballets. Her movements are a stunning blend of classical and contemporary, but she doesn’t hide the physical difficulty of dancing; there are gasps for breath, and pauses. When the long-awaited prince (dressed in a silvery sweatsuit) finally arrives, he holds her with a bored, apathetic expression as she executes impressive gravity lifts. It’s Swan Lake as gymnastic exercise. Ultimately Dukhovnaya exits, abandoning the man in what is a clear departure from tragic romance. Her unique approach on ‘Swan Lake’ is both a hollow and almost satirical representation of the standard scenario, reminding us of the significance of reinventing familiar stories and breathing bold new life into cultural traditions.
Spun out of Russia’s quintessential classical ballet warhorse, Olga Dukhovnaya’s sharply entertaining, politically-charged solo (well, not quite) is a good example of how knowing a work’s context can enhance and expand our appreciation of it. Dukhovnaya lives in France but is Ukrainian. After COVID and the 2022 Russian invasion scuppered a commission (from a new Moscow museum) to fashion her own, full-scale Swan Lake, Dukhovnaya concocted this small but resonant and cheeky deconstruction.
Costumed in leotard, glittery black trousers and trainers, she starts out like a militant, pseudo-balletic rock chick, shifting into deliberately effortful slow-mo poses and mechanically deranged, GIF-like repetiton until a functional-at-best prince (Alexis Hedouin in a glossy boilersuit) briefly materialises. The performance is knowingly low-budget, with select audience members donning headlamps to illuminate the dancing.
Dukhovnaya is a hard-working charmer. Taking a breather, she tells us about Russia’s absurd habit of broadcasting the trad Swan Lake on any and all TV channels every time there’s a crisis in the regime. Her version examines and subverts the ballet’s meaning. It’s a welcome act of cultural defiance and destabilisation.
Olga Dukhovnaya, in sneakers and disco trousers, strikes a ballet pose. Loud bunker-techno, bouncing ponytail trying to keep up with legs. Shamanistic screaming, limbs outpacing all the rest of her. Halt. Return to pose. Repeat and return again and again until she’s panting through clenched teeth, as if pushing herself through liquid that’s more tar than water. Lights off. Laughter. Three rows of us who were given headlights illuminate Dukhovnaya’s now-dying disco-swan. Tchaikovsky goes 8-bit, but she stays down.
During a breather-intermezzo, Dukhovnaya tells of a surreal tradition: when death or crisis struck in the USSR, Swan Lake would be broadcast on all channels, transforming classicism into a symbol of decay. The end of the Soviet Union was heralded by three days of the ballet. A dispassionate Alexis Hedouin then enters in gleaming tracksuit to assist Dukhovnaya towards an ending.
At Swan Lake Solo I felt left out of many in-jokes (I’m a ballet-noob) but was amused enough watching a musical box ballerina attempting an escape from preprogrammed motions.