While I was away last week, my good friend Ashley helmed the ship with a post for Delphine of new contemporary music. I, meanwhile, was enjoying a completely different kind of musical experience. Vienna was one of the stops on my trip abroad, and while touring the city one day with my boyfriend, we learned from a guard outside the grand Staatsoper (the opera house) that they sell same-day standing room tickets to all evening performances for 3 euro a ticket.
My Rick Steve’s guidebook corroborated his tip. So, I walked up to inspect the glass-encased poster by the ticket counter announcing the evening’s program. “Schwanensee”. I knew what this had to mean: Swan Lake, the Tchaikovsky ballet.
Swan Lake is music that my ear has heard many times: in a dance class as a child, in movie scores here and there, on the classical radio station that my parents had on in the house. It’s familiar, beautiful music. Seeing the ballet performed on stage though, would be a first.
An hour’s queue and 6 euros later, we found ourselves climbing the stairs to the balcony level standing room space. It occurred to me then that I didn’t actually know the ballet’s story. They don’t pass out a libretto in the standing room sections. Nor would it have done much good if they had: my German language skills begin and end with “wiener schnitzel.” As the symphony began to play from the pit and the curtain rose, I felt excitement kindle within me, and I realized that the story was very much secondary to the experience (anyway, you could make out a rough idea: a prince, a villain, a love interest) because there was so much to LOOK at. The athleticism and poise of the dancers as they leapt and spun, light as air. The whole orchestra working together like organs in the human body to keep the music alive. But for me, the visual delight was, above all, the costumes. They were equally as beautiful and dreamlike as the dancing.
Done in a classical style, each character’s attire had a level of detail and quality that constructed a world to be believed. Velvets were plush and silks draped luxuriously. The slippers, a true ballet pink, had not a mark on them.
Most of the audience is introduced to the swan-queen, who is the prima ballerina, in act 2 before they see her flock of swans. But because of where we stood, she was out of view to me in her first appearance. So I saw the flock of swans first. This worked out well because I didn’t think it was possible for any costume to be more beautiful than theirs, and so I doubled over in delight when I finally caught a glimpse of her, this ethereal beauty, the good-hearted queen trapped in a swan’s body by an evil sorcerer’s curse.
Each swan ballerina was outfitted in a delicate ivory bodice and wafer-like organza tutu with a white feathered headdress. At first glance, the swan-queen appeared to be wearing the same costume as the other swans, yet she felt more sharply in view. Slowly I pinpointed the subtle distinctions. A trail of golden glitter swirled around her skirt and up the bodice like stardust encircling her. Her headpiece was not simply white feathers like the others – hers sparkled like diamonds and some of the feathers were dipped in gold. It was a crown. The spot-lighting intentionally found her and she was bathed in her own stream of cool moonlight.
When she was on stage, she held every gaze in the house, and even some people’s breaths. She possessed us completely with her poise and her beauty and her individuation. The stage, the music, the audience was hers. As she danced, the flock of homogeneous swans were lined up along the sides of the stage, frozen in a deferential pose to her. Even to someone who didn’t understand the story there could be no mistake that this was our lead. She stood apart.
How does this apply to my life? Or to your life? Well it may be silly, but I walked away considering that a little stardust can set you apart when the stream of light finds you. I think we all feel sometimes that our lives make us ordinary. Rote work at the job, a string of disappointing dates, never-ending cold weather. We can lose our confidence in the day-to-day, but the truth is, we never lose our exceptionality. The swan queen doesn’t have it easy. She’s quite imperfect – actually worse than imperfect, cursed. But she is majestic in the form and in the circumstances in which she finds herself. Tchaikovsky’s tragic heroine may mean many things to many smarter, more cultured people than me. But to me she inspires the idea of one’s own presence. She makes me want to walk a little taller. Allow self-assuredness to bloom, and to go ahead and wear a floor length gown to dinner. Be the prima ballerina from time to time.
We left at the intermission before the final act. We needed a cocktail after a full day of standing. Plus, I had a hunch it was going to end with tragedy and I preferred to remember my leading lady as I met her – a beauty of epic proportion and untouchably poised.