• Odile: Ballet’s best bad girl
    Marilyn Jones as Odile in Peggy van Praagh's Swan Lake. Photography The Australian Ballet
  • Odile: Ballet’s best bad girl
    Olivia Bell as Odile in Anne Woolliams' Swan Lake. Photography Jim McFarlane
  • Odile: Ballet’s best bad girl
    Lucinda Dunn as Baroness von Rothbart in Graeme Murphy's Swan Lake. Photography Liz Ham
  • Odile: Ballet’s best bad girl
    Lana Jones as Odile and Andrew Killian as Siegfried in Stephen Baynes' Swan Lake. Photography Jeff Busby

Odile: Ballet’s best bad girl

Black swan, owl-shaped spirit, or snaky seductress?

For such a dramatic art form, classical ballet is remarkably short on villains – particularly female ones. Bar a couple of witches, a wili and a stepmother, the villainess gets to shine in a sparse handful of ballets: The Sleeping Beauty has the vengeful fairy Carabosse (sometimes played by a man), who memorably plucks hair from the scalp of an unfortunate courtier; La Bayadére has Gamzatti, the scheming vamp who plants a snake in her rival’s fruit basket. But the undoubted queen of ballet badness is Odile, the black-mirror replica of the heroine Odette in Swan Lake. Glittering darkly, tempting the Prince away from his true-love vow in a thrilling pas de deux, Odile steals the show every time.

She lives firmly in the modern imagination as the Black Swan, but she started life as a mere enchantress. In the character list for Swan Lake’s initial 1877 production Odile appears only as von Rothbart’s daughter, “the exact replica of Odette”. In the 1895 reworking of the ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov she is again “the replica of Odette”. Nothing is said about swans or even blackness. True, in the 1895 version Odile wore a dark dress, but Ponomarayev’s costume drawings for this production show a flashy gown adorned with an immense star burst of paler colour on the bodice and paler rays almost entirely covering the skirt, giving a rainbow effect; in Margaret Fleming-Makarian’s book Symbolism in Nineteenth Century Ballet (2012), the colours are described as “pale pink, blue and yellow”. Fleming-Makarian also points out her headdress, “a yellow band of twin serpents”. Odile’s incarnation as the black swan, a literal negative image of Odette, seems to be a recent innovation; scholars trace the wearing of the black tutu to a performance of the ballroom act of Swan Lake, given under the title “The Magic Swan”, toured  by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the early 1940s. As late as 1947, in a review for Ballet magazine, the English critic Cyril W Beaumont describes Odile as wearing “a dark green tutu decorated with pale green sequins which gives her a sinister snake-like effect” (shades of the Ponomarayev headdress!).

The pairing of a white swan with a wicked snake may have a deeper origin than the serpentine curl of the swan’s neck. In the Russian folktale “Sweet Mikailo Ivanovich the Rover”, which has not a few parellels with the story of Swan Lake, Mikhailo’s beloved of the “sugar mouth”, the white swan Marya, dies and is buried; underground, she turns into her other incarnation, the dragon (or serpent) of the Underworld, and lies in wait to kill him. Mikailo must cut her into bits, clean her body of serpents, and sprinkle her with holy water before they can be married. Against seemingly steep odds, they live happily ever after.

Von Rothbart, in many versions of Swan Lake, is a genie who takes the form of an owl. In his Stories of the Ballets (1937, revised 1949), Beaumont describes the sorcerer as entering the ballroom dressed to “respresent a black swan”, and refers to him as the Knight of the Black Swan. (This recalls Erik Bruhn’s 1967 version of Swan Lake; Bruhn, who had an unhappy relationship with his mother, transforms the ballroom von Rothbart into a baleful Black Queen, who faces off with Siegfried’s mother as if on a chess board.) However, in his 1952 book The Ballet called “Swan Lake”, Beaumont makes no mention of Odile as a swan, black or otherwise. Rather, he suggests that “daughter” is “a more convenient figure of speech for what is clearly a familiar spirit.” As evidence for this theory, he mentions an account of an 1899 production of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky, in which Odile, when her deception is over, turns into an owl. At a later point, Beaumont says that Odile “normally” wears “a skirt of some colour so that it differs from the white costume worn by Odette … the coiffure is more glamorous and the features made up to suggest hardness and brilliance. In short, Odile is depicted as a rather obvious adventuress.”

Swan, owl or glamourpuss, Odile, through the many 20th- and 21st-century versions of Swan Lake, can generally be relied upon to show up. Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake is almost unique in that it does away with her altogether. However, the Snake of the Underworld is not buried that easily. Murphy and his creative team allow her to surface subtly in the characters of both Odette and her nemesis, the Baroness von Rothbart.

That Odette and the Baroness, rivals for the Prince’s love, can be seen as somehow paired is set up right at the start of the ballet, in the Prologue. Odette, doubting the Prince’s love, roams the Palace restlessly on the night before her marriage. Hearing his step, she conceals herself in a curtain. The silky black drapery then seductively reveals a woman’s form, clinging tight to her breast and hips, which the Prince caresses. The curtain is thrust aside – to reveal the Baroness, dressed for the boudoir in a fetching negligee.

This intriguing play between Odette and her dark sister Odile, in both their traditional and Murphy forms, weaves throughout the ballet. The Baroness both embodies the Rothbart role – the schemer, the evil one, the engine of Odette’s tragedy – and that of his daughter Odile. She appears most obviously Black Swan-ish at the beginning of the Act III ballroom scene, where, dressed in darkly sparkling brocades, she triumphantly caresses the Prince, holding him in thrall to her charms. Murphy’s choreography for the Baroness is persistently serpentine; she is always twining herself around Siegfried, her arms curling around his neck and head to draw him into the private circle of their bodies.

When the Prince visits Odette in her asylum room, she is sent into a frenzy by the sight of the Baroness at the tall windows. Impatiently checking her watch, dressed in black furs, the Baroness is like an insouciant, negative-image version of the distraught swan queen that beats at the windows of the ballroom in the traditional Swan Lake, trying to prevent her lover’s betrayal. The Prince, in this version, goes to join the Baroness, and Odette clings helplessly to the window from the inside.

However, it is Odette, in chiffon-winged white, who triumphs in Murphy’s ball scene (sort of – she gets the guy, but loses her mind), and Odette who gets to whip out fouéttes to the music for Odile’s spectacular Act III variation. Murphy, following what scholars believe to be the original order of the score, moves this music to Act I, and uses it as the soundtrack to Odette’s public breakdown. As she defiantly spins, her demure white lace gown reveals a black underskirt – the dark menace of her madness, which will finally kill her. (A decade later, this figuring of Odette’s dark side not as a doppelganger but as a cracked aspect of her psychology resurfaces in the Darren Aranofsky film Black Swan.)

This symbology is fully developed in the tragic fourth act, where Odette, her fragile mind snapped, returns to the swan fantasies of her Act II asylum hallucinations. This time she’s not coming back, and she and all her swans wear black costumes. Her madness, her dark side, has triumphed; but as she drowns herself, in a spectacular coup de theatre, black gives way to white, torment to peace. Perhaps this white swan, in the Underworld beneath the frozen lake, can be free of all wicked snakes.

What’s your best ever Odile moment?

See our dancers perform the Black Swan in Stephen Baynes’ traditional version of Swan Lake, playing in Adelaide 5-11 July. Tickets selling fast!

2 July 2013

10 Responses to Odile: Ballet’s best bad girl

  1. Jenifer Mary Jones says:

    Disappointed with Andrew in the lead role in Swan Lake, on Thursday June 27. He almost dropped Leanne. Sadly he lacks what all the male Principal Artists bring to the stage. All the other dancers on the night were amazing as was tie music, staging, lighting etc..

  2. Sue Bebarfald says:

    We saw Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake last Saturday (1.30). this was not the first time that I have seen it…But it really is a marvellous version AND it was danced superbly by Madeleine Eastoe and Lucinda Dunn. Rudy Hawkes is also promising.
    I have been attending Ballet for more than 70 years (AB subscriber) and as an audience member I think this ballet is most memorable! It really is stunning, and with our adventurous ,strong, and confident dancers it is Australia’s crowing glory.
    Thank You Sue Bebarfald

  3. Rose Mulready says:

    Hi Jenifer,

    Ballet is a risky business! Mishaps can happen to the best of dancers – even the megastars have their moments. Fortunately Andrew is the consummate artist so I’m sure he would have gone right on with his wonderful interpretation of Siegfried, for which he was well reviewed. Glad you enjoyed the performance!

  4. Rose Mulready says:

    Hi Sue,

    What an accolade for Murphy’s Swan Lake that in 70 years of ballet, this is the highlight! Thanks so much for writing in!

  5. Jen in Beast Entleigh says:

    There’s a lovely fantasy novel by Mercedes Lackey called The Black Swan, which looks at the Swan Lake story from Odile’s point of view, as a devoted daughter to a mostly absent single father. The Baron hates women because his wife died in childbirth (abandoning him, I suppose) and has had his invisible servants raise Odile while he travels the countryside in search of women who “deserve” his punishment of being turned into swans. He finds Siegfried’s mother deserving as she wants to retain her rule of that country beyond Siegfried’s coming of age, and so the Baron’s plans develop. I won’t give away more, but Odile is definitely not seen as a villainess in this version!
    I’m curious to know what other balletomanes might think of this book…

  6. Gwendoline says:

    Interesting that this ballet was presented in the United States as ‘The story of Charles, Diana and Camilla’. Of course it had rave reviews.

  7. Rose Mulready says:

    Jen, that sounds fascinating! Will definitely have to track it down!

  8. Melissa says:

    I had the pleasure of experiencing Swan Lake Saturday 29th (7.30) and found it to be a wonderfully emotional performance. I thought both Andrew and Leanne did a superb job, it brought tears to my eyes to watch the emotion they shared and the wonderful movements that they danced together. Graeme Murphys version is my favourite!

  9. eudora says:

    From the first time I saw Swan Lake I thought Odile’s dress should be red.
    Why? Because she’s the child (the product) of “Red-Beard” and, first of all, because of the music. Odile’s pas de deux sounds like red in my ears.
    Besides, I never saw the oposition Odette-Odile as good – bad but as the oposition between the spiritual world against the material reality.
    I hope some day somewhere some coreographer will create a new Odile, the red one.

  10. Pingback: Odile in Green? « Clara's Coffee Break

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