Dangerous Love

New ballet hits close to home

Swan Lake is not just a simple tale of the boy meets bird, boy loves bird, boy is hoodwinked by the wrong bird, boy and love bird are destroyed variety. It is a simple love story, yes, but one on which complex and widely differing narratives and themes have been built, from the stereotypical contest between men and women to the existential relationship of the real to the ideal.

Testifying to the enduring relevance of this popular classic, life yet again impersonates art when the National Ballet Of Canada takes the stage this week in artistic director James Kudelka’s new production of Swan Lake.

The two beautiful male leads have been cast perfectly.

In Kudelka’s version of the ballet, the Black Queen, a character unique to the National and made famous by the likes of Karen Kain, is gone. She’s replaced by the male villain of more traditional Swan Lakes, Von Rothbart, danced by Rex Harrington, the company’s cocky, flirtatious and flamboyant male star.

“Rothbart is easy for me to put on,” says Harrington. “We all have a dark side, a side of us ruled by sex, evil, mystery…. And we’ve all met horrible manipulators who stab you once your back is turned.”

It’s a role tailor-made for Harrington, who’s been with the company since 1983. Consistently, Harrington has been hot ticket internationally. But he’s had the mis-, or good, fortune of labouring in a town notoriously unimpresssed with homegrown stars.

Originally, he wasn’t to dance in Swan Lake at all. But Harrington fought his way back in and Kudelka kept increasing the size of the role during the choreographic process.

“I love the part,” says Harrington. “I get more costume changes than Cher.”

Rothbart is the enigmatic ruler of the swans, the forest and the lake. In this version, Rothbart is both good and evil, representing the dangerous freedom of a fuller, more humane life than that found at court, home of the doomed, swan-loving Prince Siegfried.

(And Rothbart is a role that Harrington has taken home with him, literally – home now being the farm, replete with swans, he recently purchased from author Timothy Findley.)

In contrast to Rothbart’s watery domain, Kudelka’s version of Siegfried’s court is now portrayed as a decaying, war-mongering, tradition-bound society.

On opening night, Siegfried is danced by Aleksandar Antonijevic, the reticent and unassuming dancer who, in his eighth year with the company, is increasingly someone to watch. (His turn as Ballanchine’s Apollo last February was unforgettable.)

Antonijevic’s Siegfried is more of an over-sensitive Hamlet than dashing prince.

“His is a journey of self-discovery,” says Antonijevic. “Siegfried is more manipulated [than in Erik Bruhn’s version]. Everything is arranged for him at court. He’s never had the chance to say what he wants and be the person he wants.


“But that doesn’t mean he’s a weaker character. He’s a very honest man and that makes everything more painful. Going to the woods, hunting, is the only thing I do from myself There, I am alone and I fall for the unknown.”

With startling sets by Santo Loquasto (who designed the National’s refurbished Nutcracker, Livent’s Ragtime and many Woody Allen films), Kudelka has turned Siegfried’s court into an opressive, armou-stuffed hall.

In contrast, Rothbart’s forest contains a ruin filled with skeletons – as if to say all war-like societies are haunted by their own collapse and destruction.

And that’s the most chilling part of this production.

Antonijevic’s entire family lives in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, which currently receives almost nightly bombing raids.

“I call them every day,” says Antonijevic. “The stress they’re under is horrible. They haven’t slept in over a month. As soon as it’s dark the sirens start and the planes are overhead and they have to move to air shelters.”

Antonijevic is mystified by Canada and NATO’s actions; he’s anxious over his family’s future in a devastated country that’s being forced to turn away from the west and its openness and cosmopolitanism.

Caught up in a deadly vortex involving both his adopted home and his homeland, Antonijevic will have little trouble finding the sadness and pathos with which to animate his reluctant prince.

And at times, it’s as if Antonijevic is Siegfried, talking about his doomed affair with Odette, the white swan (danced by the amazing Greta Hodgkinson) – a man for whom love offers the best politics and the greatest of tragic endings.

“I believe in romantic love,” says Antonijevic. “It gives you so much, whether it hurts you or not.”

Swan Lake continues until Fri, May 14 at the Hummingbird Centre (1 Front St E). Tix are $19 to $85; all tix are $35 ($12 in rear balcony) on Tue, May 11. Evening performances start at 7:30pm. Call (416) 345-9595.

The contributor photo for Gordon Bowness

Gordon Bowness (he/him) is the executive editor of Xtra. With a 30-year career covering the LGBTQ2S+ community, Gordon is also the founding editor of Go Big magazine and In Toronto (now In Magazine). He is an English speaker and lives in Toronto.

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