The screened performance of Swan Lake undoubtedly problematizes what Susan Leigh Foster calls the ballerina-as-phallus. By performing homosexual heroes, this new approach to the classic ballet re-engages notions of gender identities in both political and aesthetic contexts. While I do not dispute the relevance of this problematization, I feel that Swan Lake more importantly interrogates the sterile and desexualized techniques of classical ballet. Foster describes how the “formality of balletic bodily shape and line dominates all coding of body parts and conventions of touching” (80). Through parody of classical ballet and re-emphasis on the corporeal body in costuming, casting, and choreography, Swan Lake resituates this ‘coding’ of the body.
The opening scene of the ballet shows the young prince sleeping in bed. A blue-lit dancer projects upon an overhead screen. The swan character is hulking and beautiful, his arms arched over his face, his chest revealing well defined muscles and curves. Unlike classical costumes that confine and camouflage the physical beauty of a dancer’s body with tight fleshy leotards, the swan is naked from the waist up wearing loose trousers. The trousers look like a white mane of hair that does not hide the sexual body, but instead suggests, even accentuates, the loose genitals and pubic hair that it covers. The swan’s costume glorifies the body: all that is held in the tightening muscles and all that hangs out: hair, genitals, fluids. The first scene contrasts a later scene in which the prince is surrounded by black clad men and women of the royal court, stiff uniformed soldiers, and the silver-clad queen with a hint of neck that reveals her own promiscuity. The dress of the Prince’s girlfriend bridges the obvious binary of courtly bodies and swan bodies. Her vivacious pink dress seems to drip off her breasts. (Honestly, I was worried her top would fall off). The short skirt reveals long skinny legs: hard muscles and soft flesh. The prince’s ultimate attraction to her ‘loose’ body is clearly suggested in his unpopular affair. These sexualized bodies certainly speak to gender identities and sexual desire, but more importantly address the sterilization of the body-as-desire in classical ballet.
The ballet-within-a-ballet also parodies notions of the sterilized body. The prince watches the hyperbolic drama of the ballet where all sexuality is lost amongst exaggerated gesture and artistic self-indulgence. The ‘spectators’ problematize the decadent panoply by passing around a bag of chips during the show. The vulgar and inappropriate actions of the prince’s girlfriend represent a body that needs to be fed, a desiring body that must consume, while the phantasmagoric apparitions on the ‘stage’ fail to perform that desire. In this way, the characters in Swam Lake play out the struggle between desiring and un-desiring bodies, sterile and fleshy bodies. While the classical dancer strains to desexualize the body in order the re-animate and re-order it, the heroes of Swan Lake animate their bodies by revealing its inherent corporeal desires.