Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake

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World-famous ballerina and artistic director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, invites the viewer backstage as she prepares to take on the dual lead in the iconic ballet Swan Lake.

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As part of BBC Two and BBC Four’s Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake presents a candid account of the challenges Rojo faces in terms of the performance of the two contrasting characters she will be playing.

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In contrast to Dancing in the Blitz, a previous programme from the Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan centres around interpreting the performance of the piece itself, as opposed to examining its social impact from within a wider cultural context.  Furthermore, the purpose of the programme is not to provide an introduction to Swan Lake, but to provide a deeper understanding and analysis of the main themes and symbolism within the story. Descriptions of the story within the programme provide the context for a deeper interpretation of the characters within the piece. As such, it seems apparent that the programme is aimed at an audience of those already somewhat familiar with ballet and ‘high culture’ in a general sense.

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The story of Swan Lake provides a linear narrative in which to place this analysis, starting from the moment the character of the White Swan, Odette is introduced. Between clips of the performance itself, we see Rojo in rehearsal studios and in her dressing room discussing the nature of the character and how this is represented within the performance.

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In one sequence Rojo is rehearsing a scene while talking the viewer through what each movement symbolises. Rojo is essentially teaching the viewer how to read each movement of the performance, providing them with the tools to interpret the subtle meanings of the piece.

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Although, of course, Rojo did not create Swan Lake, her interpretation of the piece is still one that carries a sense of validity and substance. As opposed to the analysis of say, an expert in the field who has seen Swan Lake numerous times and read countless books on the topic, the perspective of the performer provides a valuable insight into the process of creating the work itself. Through their performance, the work is recreated again and again.

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Good Swan, Bad Swan essentially presents a character study through the narrative of Rojo preparing to undertake the dual lead in Swan Lake. The programme is less about Rojo’s role as a performer, and more about understanding themes and symbolism surrounding the key characters within the piece.

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Programmes like Good Swan, Bad Swan demonstrate how television can compliment the arts by creating more informed audiences. However, I am hesitant to suggest that programmes such as this make the arts more accessible to a wider range of people. There is still the sense that these programmes are primarily targeted at those who are already familiar with ballet, and ‘high culture’ in general. So whilst they serve to nurture such audiences, they do little to contribute to expanding them.

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