A new swan lake

Israeli choreographer Idan Cohen creates his own new interpretation of this monumental work.

Swan Lake (photo credit: MAREK WEIS)
Swan Lake
(photo credit: MAREK WEIS)
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake begins to play in Tel Aviv’s Suzanne Dellal Center, audience members whispering to each other, lights still on. Three or four tomatoes lie at the edge of the stage. The curtains remain closed as the music plays for a few more minutes. When the lights have dimmed and the curtains have opened, three women dancers emerge, two bobbing their heads violently to the music, the third dancing separately, celebrating on her own. The three wear “going-out” clothes, leather skirts and sparkling dresses with exaggerated makeup. By the end of the act, they will have shed their clothes, their movements turned barbaric, screeching and obsessing over their personal experience in movement.
Several years before Swan Lake was hurled back into the popular culture spotlight with the Oscar-winning film Black Swan, Israeli choreographer Idan Cohen delved into the monumental work to create his own, reinterpreting it for contemporary times. After two years of touring the world, his production has returned to Suzanne Dellal’s theater with two new dancers.
His objectives with the work have always been the same: to use the story’s themes and music to express the complexity of human experience, giving both dancers and viewers an experience of their own.
At the outset of his professional career several years ago, Cohen was commissioned to choreograph a piece for a world-renowned, 40-year-old dance troupe from Sofia, Bulgaria. Dewy-eyed and giddy, he got on a plane knowing he was living the dancer’s dream. But two weeks into his stay, going back to a lonely, gloomy hotel during Bulgaria’s cold winter and carrying the pressures of a creative process, he felt the difficulties of being an independent choreographer setting in. He began to examine the idea of the dream versus reality, planting the seed for the focus of his Swan Lake.
Cohen meets me with one of his three dancers, Tamar Grosz, at a café in southern Tel Aviv. Tall and thin, with curly brown hair and blue eyes, he answers questions readily yet shyly, at times blushing and laughing at his own responses.
“That image of the ballerina – of Odette, Odile and the swan – to some extent represents that dream of every little girl and sometimes little boy who wants to dance,” he explains. “Where does that meet the difficult, painful, day-to-day life of a dancer? Where do our lives compare to the dream? From within that hotel in Bulgaria, at a very significant point in my life, I decided I was interested in dealing with this dream and its breaking – or the dream and its difficulties.”
His rendition of Swan Lake is not a direct telling of the story, but an exploration of what it means today, borrowing three main themes from the original ballet.
The first is the idea of birthdays. Like the classic version, which opens with Prince Siegfried’s birthday party, the first act in Cohen’s Lake is a celebration of birthdays. “The birthday represents those dreams,” he says, “the day where we are asked, ‘What do I want?’”
AT THE beginning of the first act, the three dancers often enact exaggerated expressions of joy: forced, wide smiles and wide-open eyes, as if the whole act of celebrating for oneself, even if it is a dream, is forced and unnatural.
The second theme is the transformation from human to animal. Though in the original piece, the swans turn into humans at nightfall, “I chose to have the dancers go through a different process, in which from being human they become more and more animalistic,” says the choreographer. This is perhaps a reaction to discovering dissonance between the revered culture to which they must adhere, or the dream, and reality, or their animal natures.
The dancers slowly shed more and more of their apparel, ultimately left with only nude, ’40s-inspired bathing suits or undergarments, almost naked as they connect more deeply with their base natures. By the second act, they’ve shed their cultural layer of party clothes completely, each centered entirely on her own experience, solos including exploration of the limbs and their capabilities in movement (“testing the limits,” as Cohen and Grosz describe it). They screech and laugh, uninhibited. Sometimes their bodies shake in dance and they immerse themselves in their surroundings.
The final theme is the lake. While in the original there is, of course, a real lake, which serves as an important component of the story – being both where Odette and Siegfried meet for the first time and where they drown themselves at the end – in Cohen’s piece, the lake is made of tomatoes, emerging in the second act as dozens of tomatoes covering the stage, dancers drowning themselves in them as they lose themselves in their bestial natures and tragic truths.
“One of the things which came up when we worked on the dance was how a different version of Swan Lake would be received by the audience. And at one point, someone said, ‘What if they throw tomatoes at us?’ And so we decided we would throw tomatoes at ourselves,” he explains.
“Ultimately we made [the dancers] drown in a sea of tomatoes which they create,” he continues. “It’s not something wrought on them from above, but something they create through the dynamic between them, bringing themselves to their own fates.”
The interactions between dancers are painful, testing the limits of each other’s bodies the way they test their own, controlling one another, at times tormenting one another as they attempt to understand themselves through their counterparts. Perhaps it is this fixation with themselves and their innermost natures that ultimately brings on the tomatoes, a tragedy, the worst thing they could experience – yet, as Cohen explains, brought upon themselves through their transformations and actions in the performance.
These elements (and many others both notable and under-the-surface) represent a bigger picture, a whole of the human experience, as Cohen understands it.
“The dancers in the work don’t represent characters,” he says. “They don’t represent [specific] musical instruments. Each represents the whole orchestra. Which brings us to a contemporary understanding of the person. I believe if I were to ask you if you were a cello or clarinet, you’d say, ‘What do you mean? I am the whole orchestra.’ The choice of having three women who represent every character in Swan Lake and actually meet in a circumscribed space, the stage, is a choice which represents [the idea that] there is no good or evil, no black swan or white swan or bad wizard. We are all of these things.”
His dancers go through an emotional experience of their own as they work through the piece. Grosz, one of the piece’s two new dancers, says each moment sweeps her away.
“As a performer executing [the piece], there is no dull moment,” she says. “When I dance, I’m not telling a story. I am there in each moment, I connect to a certain experience and get addicted to it.”
Grosz’s character is the first to shed her sparkly dress, the first to dance a solo in which the character grabs limbs and tests her flexibility, the first to stand on stage, back to the audience, shaking in her bodysuit, and the first to immerse herself in the tomatoes on stage, breaking one open and squeezing so its juices wash over her back like blood.
The dancer who originally performed Grosz’s part is Daniel Gal, who worked with Cohen for nine months on creating Swan Lake before its first performance in Poland in 2009, and continued dancing it for a year afterward. Gal, too, found herself experiencing dance like never before.
“I couldn’t figure out the way to do a solo,” she says of the creative process and one of her final solos on the stage. “I raised my leg up high and I fell on the ground on time and I listened to the music. But it wasn’t sensitive enough, and I did it again and again and I didn’t understand. And at one point he said, ‘While you’re dancing it, just watch [the other dancers] – that’s all I’m asking, live the moment.’ It’s so simple and so not an obvious move for dancers.”
Having delved so deeply into the work, Gal believes the piece should be an experience for the audience, as it is for the dancers and for Cohen.
“As we experience it, so should the audience,” she says. “A lot of times people say, ‘I don’t understand it,’ but there is no need to understand anything. There are many mediums that I don’t understand like I understand dance, but [it’s about] the experience. It’s online, it’s constantly happening.”
BY THE finale, all three dancers are covered in tomato juice from having sat, stepped and danced in as well as bitten into the sea of tomatoes on stage. In the last scene before the curtain closes, two of the dancers lie on stage, defeated (perhaps by the realization of how big the gap between their reality and their dreams is) and the third stands seemingly triumphant save for the red clown’s nose on her face (one of several props designed to conjure contemporary images of celebration and ridicule).
Having watched the performance, audience members Nava Shapiro and companion Noah weigh in on their reactions.
“At first I thought the dancing itself was much more powerful than the story,” says Shapiro. “And then I thought, why am I searching for a story? Maybe that’s the catch. I experienced something – I think the journey of the movement is fantastic.”
Noah agrees: “The dancing was amazing. You get sucked in without knowing this is Swan Lake, except for the music in the back. I think it was only at the end that I tried to understand. In the last scene you can look at it as someone’s soul carrying various baggage.”
Gal, meanwhile, has watched the performance as an audience member for the first time.
“It’s a different energy,” she says. “There were little things that suddenly really made me laugh, and I understood. The whole use of voice suddenly looked like it came from somewhere else. I suddenly saw the things that are different, the things that are complex.”
And so Cohen has managed to take not just those seeing the performance for the first time, but those who know the piece as deeply as he does, on a surprising emotional ride