It was rather peculiar to hear the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s heart wrenching Swan Lake at the Center for Performance Research, an intimate venue in Williamsburg that provides affordable space for rehearsal and performance of contemporary dance. For me, Swan Lake brings to mind a large opera house, a tragic love story, and a flock of arm-flapping dancers in white tutus. But in the version of the work performed on April 7th and 8th at CPR, Israeli choreographer Idan Cohen has done away with the fairy tale narrative and corps of swans, preserving only 65 minutes of Tchaikovsky’s three-hour score. While the traditional Swan Lake tells a black and white story where there is no mingling of good and evil or beauty and ugliness, Cohen’s 21st-century version emphasizes the story’s shades of gray by exploring the emotions and personal struggles that the characters face rather than focusing on the story itself. It was a raw, gritty, and sometimes violent exploration of the self, rooted in the trio of women’s relentless commitment to the movement.
Several vignettes centering on a theme of birthdays set the scene throughout the piece’s first half. As Daniel Gal, Rita Komisarchik, and Reut Levi took turns wearing a red clown nose, they made dramatic facial expressions and shifted abruptly between fits of laughter and lonely, fearful glances at the others. Rigorous floorwork illustrated self-awareness and coming to terms with their identities. They threw their limbs to the ground and often ended in a tangled mess, only to untangle and suddenly be curled up alone in a ball. Vulnerability was offset by toughness, and the balancing act between the two grew more pronounced as the piece continually examined the individual as both an outsider and an integrated member of a community.
The momentum gained during the first half was unfortunately weakened by an intermission that broke the flow of the second half. Yet, it was intriguing to watch the dancers navigate their way through a sea of tomatoes that had flooded the stage. Moving through this metaphorical lake without crushing one of the red fruits was impossible. The use of breath and vocalizations intensified as the dancers gasped, whooped, and laughed aloud with increasing frequency. Although using their voices might have been liberating, the dancers’ strain and agony were palpable. They were drowning, oppressed by something greater than themselves, and struggling even more than they were during the earlier birthday scenarios.
United by Tchaikovsky’s score, both versions of Swan Lake illustrate loneliness. But while the traditional interpretation conveys fragility and inner conflict through fluttering arms and a painful love story, Cohen’s version relied on vigorous movement and raw emotions within the fierce dancers while avoiding literal portrayals of a prince, a kingdom, and a forest full of swans.