Throughout ballet history, several characters die by suicide, such as Giselle, or (in some versions) Odette and the prince in Swan Lake. In the past centuries, ballet was mainly entertainment, and the protagonists’ suicide could seem somehow in contrast with the ideal of the romantic ballet. Only later (18th century) ballet became an independent art form, which could be used also as an instrument to communicate social messages. Famous example of ballets that represent suicide and suicide struggles include Giselle, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote, where the main reason for suicide is unhappy love. There is often a poor lady who has been abandoned or betrayed by her lover and commits suicide; consequently the “survivor” men have to face the burden of their beloved loss. Some ballets also deal with homicide-suicide cases and double suicide. Sometimes the theme of suicide permeates the whole representation, and the idea of suicide haunts the protagonist, who designs and programs it in detail, while other times suicide is represented as an impulsive gesture. Different suicide methods can be represented, including violent ones, but the most frequent is suicide by poisoning. Sometimes viewers find out that a character died by suicide, but are left to imagine about it, while in other works suicide is represented in detail, albeit always in elegant manners, for example using specific steps, that can simulate the act. Dancers that have to play the role of characters that commit suicide may live and perform these dramatic moments in different ways, deeply moved by their feelings, in particular when the decision to commit suicide accompanies the characters for all the opera.
Swan lake is a ballet composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1875–76; the choreographer of the original production was Julius Reisinger. Since then, Swan Lake has been one of the most performed ballets all over the world. Outstanding dancers, such as Carla Fracci and Rudolf Nureev performed this masterpiece in theaters, which in 2010 inspired also the movie “Black Swan” by Darren Aronofsky (see Movie of the Month).
The opera, generally presented in four acts, tells about Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer’s curse. Prince Siegfried must choose a bride at the royal ball and he is really upset that he cannot marry for love. He goes out with his friends and reaches the lakeside where there are many swans and one of them transforms into a beautiful maiden, Odette, who explains that she and her companions are victims of a spell cast by the sorcerer Rothbart. The spell can only be broken if one who has never loved before swears to love Odette forever. Rothbart goes to the royal ball with his daughter Odile, transformed to look like Odette and they deceive Siegfried who proclaims to the court that he will marry “Odette” (Odile). When he realizes his mistake, he goes back to the lake to apologize with Odette, who has chosen to die, rather than remaining a swan forever. Siegfried chooses to die with her and they leap into the lake. This action breaks Rothbart’s spell over the swan maidens, causing him to lose his power over them. Rothbart eventually dies, and the swan maidens watch Siegfried and Odette ascending into the Heavens together, forever united in love.There are also many alternative endings in which Odette and Siegfried live happily ever after or kill Rothbart, and also tragic endings in which Rothbart fights with Siegfried, who is defeated and dies, leaving Rothbart to take Odette triumphantly up to the heavens.
- Dances of death from Paris to Saint Petersburg: suicides in ballet
By Iris Julia BÜHRLE, University of Oxford
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