Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ gets an Odissi flavour

Feb 7, 2024

Adaptation of the classic ballet 'Swan Lake' from 'Hansika'.

Adaptation of the classic ballet 'Swan Lake' from 'Hansika'. , Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

'Glide' is a term often used to refer to swans. 'Hansika', the dance extravaganza created by Bengaluru-based Odissi exponent Sharmila Mukherjee, highlighted why the Indian remake of the timeless ballet 'Swan Lake' was marked by slow, graceful movements.

Originally choreographed by Julius Reisinger, with unforgettable music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (released in 1877), 'Swan Lake' has stood the test of time, piqueing the curiosity of dancers, storytellers and artists for centuries . Watching 'Hansika' it was easy to understand why. The tragic story of two lovers separated by a curse will never grow old, as it is filled with a range of emotions from love and jealousy to anger and vengeance, not to mention the age-old battle between good and evil Has gone. These emotional elements and the skill of the performance creators allowed the Eastern European story to be easily transferred to the Indian classical dance context. It is truly admirable that the collaborators have harmoniously blended everything in the production, from music to lighting and costumes.

From 'Hansika', a choreographic work by Odissi exponent Sharmila Mukherjee.

From 'Hansika', a choreographic work by Odissi exponent Sharmila Mukherjee. , Photo courtesy: Anil Babu

Aesthetic motifs and metaphors are established early in the performance, beginning with a spectacular swan dance sequence. The group of dancers moved as one, their grace and unity mirroring the behavior of a flock of birds as the evening light painted the lake and forest with its colors. The contrasting music that follows in the next scene clearly marks a shift in masculine energy as the two hunters enter the space in search of game. One of the hunters is Prince Siegfried who is ordered by his mother to choose a bride for himself as soon as possible, as we may know if we are familiar with the plot of Swan Lake. Here, we see the young prince, separated from his friend, wandering along the lake shore, searching for the elusive swans that had enthralled him just minutes earlier. He meets Odette, who transforms from a swan into a woman at night and is living the curse of a witch, who in this version of the Russian folktale turns out to be her jealous sister. The lovers' meeting and courtship depicts the innocence of first love as we watch Odette explain how she came to this dual existence. The classical Odissi sequence that follows features the competition between the sisters (both talented dancers in the story too), which takes a sinister turn when one sister succumbs to evil tendencies and curses the other.

Of the scenes that follow, the ones that stand out most for me are the almost staged preparations for the marriage and the act of deception that seals the lovers' fate forever. The never-dying sorceress, while she rejoices at their plight, leaves the audience with a question as to how long the swans will also survive as the lakes are drying up on a dying planet. This was the only point in the performance that was unclear because it did not match the Sorceress's character or was not clearly fleshed out as to the story at that point.

When we talked about the performance the next day, Sharmila graciously accepted it. She says that the performance evolves each time it is viewed, highlighting that it was a “pleasure” to create this work based on a folktale that has enthralled her since childhood. “It took us a year. The music was the first layer of work,” she says, adding how “fascinating” it was to watch Praveen D. Rao design the music for it. “Even working with composers, he would often compose and record continuously. He further added that his working process led him to choreograph and visualize the performance well before bringing the dancers together. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the music in the production was perfect and was almost a character in itself. The use of pakhavaj, flute, sitar, violin and singing – all kept the story and movements in a warm embrace, while retaining the melody of the original classical ballet music created by Tchaikovsky years earlier. This, coupled with the elegant dancing of the Sanjali Ensemble artists, made 'Hansika' an enriching experience of watching dance rooted in more than one form.

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