Idan Cohen’s “Swan Lake” Soars into the 21st Century

Posted on 23 August 2009 by Deborah Friedes Galili

Idan Cohen's "Swan Lake"

Idan Cohen’s Swan Lake.  Photo by Marek Weis.

During a preview of the Maholohet festival at Suzanne Dellal in June, the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s famous Swan Lake filled the air.  But what I saw on stage had no overt connection to the images which popped into my mind: a ballerina executing 32 fouettes, four petite dancers doing petit allegro with their arms interlinked, and row after row of “swans” waving their arms like powerful wings.

I was intrigued, and a few weeks ago, I sat down with choreographer Idan Cohen to hear about his contemporary take on one of the most famous ballets in history.  While the three minutes I saw of his work caught my eye, I’m now even more curious about the entire piece.  This is an unmistakably 21st-century Swan Lake, but the connections to the popular 18th-century version run deep.

This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post as “When the Cygnet Grows Up.”

* * *

When the Cygnet Grows Up

“I think the only reason to create something has to be out of love and out of a connection,” states choreographer Idan Cohen.

Like many in the dance world, Cohen feels a strong love for and a deep connection to Swan Lake, the iconic ballet which Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov presented at the famed Mariinsky Theatre in 1895.  Celebrated choreographers from George Balanchine to Mats Ek to Matthew Bourne have put their own spins on the work.  Now with the generous support of several organizations, including Israel’s Culture Ministry, the Pais Foundation and the Suzanne Dellal Center, Cohen is unveiling his own contemporary version in Tel Aviv.

Cohen cites the choreographic history of Swan Lake as one motivating factor in undertaking this production, and he adds, “I feel I have a very deep connection both to the music [by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky] and also to the cultural place that the music and the ballet takes inside our culture, the western culture.  Swan Lake presents such a beautiful, romantic image of strong forces: good opposite evil, beauty opposite alternative beauty, animal versus human . . . all those ideas that are portrayed in Swan Lake in such a defined way – I kind of wanted to open them up and to research how we relate to those forces today.”

Idan Cohen's "Swan Lake"

Idan Cohen’s Swan Lake.  Photo by Marek Weis.

Cohen’s updated interpretation marks a dramatic, decidedly modern departure from most previous versions of Swan Lake.  Both the royal court and the tutu-clad corps de ballet of swans that dominate ballet renditions are replaced by three female contemporary dancers (Reut Levi, Rita Komisarchik and Daniel Gal) who remain onstage the entire time.  Whereas many productions of the dance stretch over four acts and last three hours – a structure typical of classical ballet – his work runs for an hour and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

Yet despite differences in the technique, setting, characters and length, Cohen’s Swan Lake retains significant links to the legendary Petipa and Ivanov version.  Cohen cut some sections from Tchaikovsky’s stirring orchestral score, but unlike many other contemporary choreographers, he did not manipulate the portions he retained.  “I hope the result is very respectful to the music,” he says, “because this is the most important thing in my eyes.  The music is so brilliant and so strong and so full and so deep that you have to come with a lot of respect and modesty when you work with music such as that.”

Moreover, Cohen explains that regarding his treatment of the music, “I related a lot to the Petipa version in the sense that there’s a lot of similarities in the construction of the group parts and of the solos and how he relates to the music.”

Idan Cohen's "Swan Lake"

Idan Cohen’s Swan Lake.  Photo by Marek Weis.

While Cohen’s Swan Lake also abandons the fairy-tale narrative of earlier productions, his innovative adaptation goes straight to the core of the original story for inspiration.  “What I tried to create in this piece is what I call an abstractization of the basic ideas that form the Swan Lake synopsis,” he reveals.

From the conventional first act, which features the birthday party of Prince Siegfried, Cohen extracted the concept of birthdays.  During the choreographic process, he and his dancers reflected on their own previous birthdays, exploring the idealization that accompanies these yearly landmarks.

Next, Cohen examined the traditional transformation of the enchanted swans from the second act and reversed this metamorphosis in a sharper look at human nature.  He remarks, “Instead of the animals becoming more and more beautiful or human, the people become more and more animalistic.”

Finally, the choreographer focused on the lake that claims the lives of Swan Lake‘s heroes, and he builds this into a powerful metaphor of what he calls “the lake we’re all struggling to get out of or are living in.”

Cohen discloses that as he and the dancers traced this alternative through-line, they asked themselves very personal questions. Thanks to the performers’ resulting emotional connection to the work and the choreographer’s adventurous, contemporary take on the original ballet’s themes, this Swan Lake proves particularly compelling and relevant for 21st-century viewers.  As Cohen prepares for the dance’s Israeli premiere at the Suzanne Dellal Center, he expresses a wish: “I do hope that the piece will touch the hearts and minds of the audience that is coming to watch it.”

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