The Swan, with choreography from David Dawson and written and filmed by Eve McConnachie, is of course inspired by “Swan Lake,” and focuses on the first six minutes of Act 4. It acts as (all being well next year) a wonderful taste of Scottish Ballet’s forthcoming full adaptation and tour.
It is an ideal pairing, as David Dawson’s work lends itself perfectly to Eve McConnachie’s streamlined and forward thinking, almost futuristic films. Indeed, of this, McConnachie said there was little that required tweaking in the editing process.
Of course, the rehearsal process and subsequent filming was created during lockdown- with Dawson instructing via Zoom—a daunting task for even the most seasoned of artists. It was not without its many challenges, such as lots of retakes and emboldening certain aspects of Dawson’s choreography, such as making bigger gestures for the camera.
According to first artist Roseanna Leney, interviewed alongside the screening of the film, one of the biggest challenges was “instead of performing out, facing out to the audience, we had to perform to each other.” It’s a typically bold and beautiful film from Scottish Ballet. If Matthew Bourne recalibrated the classic to focus on his unique male swans, the emphasis here is very much on feminine energy.
Flanked by the statuesque female dancers, principal Constance Devernay is a soulful Odette, a brooding, intense presence. She’s set, front and centre with the others in an entirely bare studio space. There’s no magnificent set to distract here, or pull attention away from the choreography. The corps de ballet are bathed in a large slash of blue light which cuts the composition and screen in half. It roots the piece very much in the present day, leaving the audience in no doubt of that. Indeed, it’s a reminder of the various forms of contemporary dance and is reminiscent of the stylistic influence of strobes from club culture on modern design.
Initially, the stark blue makes the women seem automaton-like, only to break into graceful life with long, sky reaching extensions. They create a beautiful formation, more akin to a forest of woodland nymphs with outstretched limbs than a group of swans in a lake. Although dreamlike, somehow too, they are corporeal, expressive in facial gestures and fluid, languid connection.
Dawson’s typically sparse choreography and spiky lines render the whole piece more modernist than traditional, then, and sharp arabesques get picked out in golden light as the piece develops. There’s a circularity to the movements. The sparseness seems to speak to the seasonal chill, with the dancers’ arms and fingers raised like spindly branches, redolent of trees without leaves in a wintry landscape. Yumiko Takeshima’s gorgeous white costumes invoke small crystalline flakes of snow and the brittle crunch of it underfoot. Occasionally, the effect is like shaking a snow globe and watching its shimmer.
Clusters are framed with a bank of arched backs and twitchy hands and bodies that slide ,rather than glide, over the floor. Eventually, dusk falls and the dancers huddle together, almost as though sheltering from a coming storm.
The strangest overall scene though in McConnachie’s film, is that Devernay, once apart at the outset, seems to, eventually, join in, blending in with the others. I am unsure if this is a conscious choreographic choice of Dawson’s, or just what best suited the film structure, but it very much reminded me of Thom Yorke’s existential lyrics from “Suspirium” (itself from the ballet horror remake Suspiria):
And when I arrive
Will you come and find me?
Or in a crowd
Be one of them?
Odette, it seems has become “one of them,” another face in a crowd, hidden and camouflaged, kept together within a mass of bodies: no romantic leading lady, nor simple totem of innocence. It seems like a statement about strength in numbers, a tactic for survival, hunkering down until the next tentative steps to ‘normality’ are learned. All of which is surely as apt a metaphor for our planet as could be possible at the tail end of this bizarre, frustrating and frightening year.
She is no longer othered, then, but a swan among many, a woman reshaped and reimagined for our times, ready to take flight into the future.