The title means “the Russian lesson” in French, the language that was popular among the intelligentsia and the upper classes of pre-revolutionary Russia. By convention, too, the titles of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake score are in French.
On Monday evening, the Ballet of Moscow staged a flawless performance of the celebrated ballet at the Goldoni Theater of Venice. The uncomplicated plot of Swan Lake is probably based on a German folktale. On the shores of a secluded lake, Prince Siegfried falls in love with Odette, a maiden who is under the malign spell of a sorcerer that turns into a swan by day. She only regains human form at night. The curse can only be broken by the eternal love a man swears to her.
Yet the prince is fooled into proposing to Odile, an identical yet evil double of Odette. Now incarnated as a black swan, Odette decides to end her life by the banks of the lake. Horrified of his error, so does the Prince, to seek communion with his love in the afterlife.
Tchaikovsky composed the ballet in 1875-1876, at the height of an era that saw a magnificent Russian culture, arts and letters. It was a time of budding hope. Russia was only being held up by the sheer monumentality of introducing progress on a country twice the size of the United States and with pockets of backwardness that dated back to the dark centuries when the Duchy of Muscovy was run by Tatars.
Yet by the late 19th century, most Russian intellectuals were as forward-looking and progressive as their Western European peers. It is hard to recall that it was only a few decades before a century of horrors would begin, with the beginning of the First World War, the mother of most the bloodshed the world is still soaked in (if you doubt this assertion, go back to the roots of the conflicts raging in Syria and Iraq).
But it’s easy to forget all that when one watches the pas de deux and the other dances of Swan Lake. Take, for instance, the Danse espagnole, the Spanish dance: the rhythms and steps, the colors and movements of a Spain clearly influenced by eight centuries of Arab rule are summed up in this Russian reinterpretation of a German legend.
This universality, and the vast promises implicit in all that brings peoples together, only took decades to break down. A series of small missteps led down to the road of destruction. Like Prince Siegfried that was bewitched into betrothing the wrong woman, tragedies in History do include evil, the evil magician in Swan Lake. Yet evil can only provide the spark for larger events. Shortsightedness and hubris, and other minor flaws of character, can do the rest.
By the turn of the 20th century, Russia was ripe for revolution but it was not inevitable yet: a proud yet weak and shortsighted Tsar Nicholas II let personal animosities dictate policy. His conservative prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, regardless of his ideological convictions and his iron hand, had recognized the need for reforms. Stolypin was shot dead at the Kiev Opera House in 1911, where he was attending a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan.
Not so subtly, however, the Tsar had been undercutting his ambitious reforms that only sought to defuse the revolution that Stolypin saw coming. But why had the Tsar had begun to sour on his ideological kin and efficient head of government? A man in his right mind, Stolypin disliked profoundly Rasputin, the black-clad, monk-like figure that had cast a spell under on Tsarina Alexandra, on account of his alleged curative powers over the Tsarevich, the hemophiliac heir to the throne, whose disease had become the obsession of the empress.
By the time of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 – the Menshevik revolt that dethroned the Tsar and the ensuing Bolshevik coup d’Etat – politics in the Russian court had become an absurd plot of enmities and rivalries that wove into them as much of ideology as of rivalries or loyalties that in no small part were based on fondness for Rasputin or animosity against him.
Any of these characters could have been a “black swan”. As popularized in more recent times by writer Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, a “black swan” is that highly unlikely event that could bring about disproportionately larger consequences. It comes from “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno”: “a rare bird in the world very much like a black swan,” a Latin phrase that dates back to the 1st century AD.
Yet we have now known that black swans do indeed exist, both actually and metaphorically. At this particular junction of developments in the world, with a combination of idiocy and lack of foresight – a certain president-elect that tweets his erratic rambles about a world he does not understand nor care to know a bit more about – we may very well find that catastrophe looms just around the corner. And happy endings only happen in fairy tales, and in Swan Lake happiness is only found in the afterlife.