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  • Writer's pictureLinnea Swarting

Swan Lake: Tragedy or Comedy?

Updated: Sep 21, 2020



Any ballet dancer can tell you how many times they have performed “Swan Lake.” An iconic ballet, a name that’s recognizable to people outside of the ballet world, it has become a staple in the repertoire. It is still one of my favorite ballets of all time. When I was 14, I saw American Ballet Theater perform “Swan Lake” at the Met, which was the pivotal moment for me in my training that set me on the path to pursue ballet professionally. I have personally now danced “Swan Lake” 3 times, and I think somehow the tragedy of the ballet, as well as my own love and desperate desire to dance it, has yielded an environment that creates comedy gold.

My very first production of “Swan Lake,” I was still in high school at University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I was so excited to perform the same version of the choreography I had seen at ABT a few years prior, and I was even more honored to be the first swan to lead the line of other swans in the iconic second act entrance. I was still young and not very strong, and every rehearsal was a string of corrections hurled at me from our teacher- “Point your toes! Jump higher! Stretch your knee, Linnea!” After weeks of blood, sweat, and tears, my teacher came into rehearsal and said, “Alright- you haven’t been trying hard enough, I’m going to move your spot in the line.” I panicked, maybe I would be in the back, maybe she would just replace me. “Switch with Allegra.”

Oh. Allegra was the second swan in line… all that drama to announce a big change in front of everyone and then move me back only one spot. After that rehearsal, my friends and I walked out of the studio, stifling giggles. I did learn my lesson though, and was still happy to perform.

The next time I performed “Swan Lake” was also dramatic- and not just on stage. I was taken out of the corps for being “too big to be on stage in a tutu.” Almost every female in ballet has their own version of this story, but mine comes with a punchline. Once we finished our first show of the run, the director then took out the girl who had replaced me, saying that she also was too big. She came into the dressing room to tell me this, and that I was going to go back in to my part for the remainder of the shows. I felt bad that she also had to go through the body shaming experience, but she seemed not to be offended by it. She then turned to the rest of the dressing room and announced that she was 4 months pregnant!

One of my friends who I danced with is now an actress/ comedian and we always talk about how ballet could generate great stand up material. We have been working on a joke for years about when we were in the corps. There was one rehearsal where we were working on the “Swan Lake” corps in the second act pas de deux with a very demanding ballet mistress. We were getting notes about a particular lunge step- “Everyone. That was bad. The lunges were bad.” If that wasn’t clear enough, she whiped her head over to my friend, Caroline, and says, “CAROLINE- yours were ESPECIALLY bad.” Everyone was bad- but you were the WORST. No correction, just “especially bad.” Every time we recount this story we end up in tears- of laughter! The public, exaggerated shaming is hysterical now that we’ve lived through it and arrived on the other side, with only minimal trauma.

The most recent “Swan Lake” memory was in 2018- I was dancing through my first major injury, a stress reaction in my second metatarsal. Since it wasn’t fractured, I was told I could still dance. I was cast as a “Big Swan” (they actually called us “Leading Swans” to avoid any kind of body shaming- what a different experience from before!) and desperately wanted to dance this soloist role, not only for myself and my own love of this ballet, but I was hoping to prove that I was good enough for a promotion. Every single day I was in pain, my foot was swollen, I took 8-10 ibuprofen a day. “Swan Lake” was more tragic this time. However, I pushed through and on opening night, sat in the dressing room getting ready with some fellow swans. We were trying to pump ourselves up and bring good energy to the dressing room, playing lots of late 90s/ early 2000s pop and R&B songs. We got our 10-minute call before curtain, and right before we were going to turn the music off, Trey Songz came on, singing:

“In too deep, can’t think about giving it up

But I never knew love would feel like a heart attack

It’s killing me, swear I never cried so much

‘Cause I never knew love would hurt this **** bad

Worst pain that I ever had.”

Who knew that “Heart Attack” could sum up our feelings about “Swan Lake” so perfectly? We all laughed, sang our hearts out along to the song, turned off the music, and took to the stage- with so much love and so much pain.

“Swan Lake” has transformed me every time I performed it. Going through whatever hard times came in the rehearsal process was always worth it on stage. I hope that these reflections can illustrate that sometimes bad things happen, sometimes setbacks come up, but we can persist through by focusing on the love we have for this art, and through laughter and good friends.

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