Odette and Odile: female duplicity in ballet

The ballet Swan Lake is inspired by a German legend about a young princess, Odette, and her companions are under the spell of an evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, who turns them into swans during the day. At night, they regain their human forms and can only be rescued if a young man swears undying love and allegiance to the princess. When Prince Siegfried swears his love for Odette, the spell can be broken, but Siegfried is tricked into declaring his love for Von Rothbart’s daughter Odile, disguised by magic as Odette, and all seems lost. But the spell is finally broken when Siegfried and Odette drown in a lake of tears, uniting them in death for all eternity.

The ballet would provide the possibility of an artistic “duel” between two great dancers, but the tradition that emerged after the failed premiere of 1877 gave only one the chance to interpret opposing personalities on the same night, contributing to a psychological element as challenging as in the footsteps of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Since 1895, playing Odette-Odile has been the rite of passage for ballerinas who want to be stars. As The New York Times perfectly put it in a 2018 article, Odette is virtuous and wronged and her enemy is the daughter of the witch she imprisoned, Odile. “Ballet is a distant cousin of those mid-20th-century women’s films where Bette Davis or Greer Garson play two women who look identical but in opposite ways,” the article reads.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood took this story to the screen in 2010 with the film Black Swan, which won Natalie Portman an Oscar. In the film, Natalie’s character goes into a destructive spiral to deal with opposing personalities.

The longevity of Swan Lake’s favoritism of dancers and audiences has some explanations, from a piece of emotionally deep and inspired music, signed by Tchaikovsky, to Petipa-Ivanov’s precise choreography, magic, and drama. “The music speaks for itself”, says one of the most respected interpreters of the role at the moment, the ballerina Irina Kolesnikova. “Swan Lake is in the blood of Russian ballet,” he says.

The drama of finding the ideal dancer for the double challenge, as shown in the movie Black Swan, seems to come from the root. Since its first production 145 years ago, it has been problematic. Anna Sobeschanskaya was supposed to dance at the premiere in 1877, but a personal scandal took her off the stage. She was replaced by Pelageya Karpakova, who was not brilliant. When she finally danced to Swan Lake, she wanted something exclusive and got a pas de deux that only she danced. The music of this section was lost for decades until it was found again in the 1950s. The famous 32 fouettes were presented by Pierina Legnani, but immortalized by Matilda Kschessinskaya.

Among the most famous to dance Odette-Odile are Margot Fonteyn, Anna Pavlova, Galina Ulanova, Maya Plissetskaya, and Natalia Makarova, to name just a few.

In addition to Makarova’s perfection, for me, Maya Plissetskaya, Cynthia Gregory, and Alicia Alonso as Black Swan are also unforgettable.

For me, one of the most remarkable was Yelena Yevteyeva whose 1968 film (in which she replaced Makarova) is still one of the best records (and the opening inspired the film, Black Swan).

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