SWAMP LAKE AND THE RAT KING, RUSSIAN BALLET: 2014
essay and illustrations by Zarina Zabrisky
Santa Claus is delivering a nasty gift for Putin this Christmas. Due to falling oil prices and Western sanctions over the Ukraine, on December 16, 2014, the ruble plunged to its historic lows. And, immediately, the old joke spread over Internet, “Are they showing Swan Lake on TV?”
TUTUS AND TANKS
In the last decades of the twentieth century Swan Lake often meant chaos and death.
On November 10th, 1982, all TV and radio channels stopped their regular programs and switched to Swan Lake. The next day, the official announcement about Brezhnev’s death arrived. That year two more country leaders died of poor health and old age. And each time, to the soundtrack of Swan Lake.
Khrushev once confessed that he dreamed of white tutus and tanks—all in one. Hardly surprising: political leaders of foreign countries visiting Moscow always attended Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, accompanied by Khrushev. Swan Lake became a political weapon during the Cold War. In August 1991, Khruschev’s nightmare came to life. During a three-day coup, all TV channels showed the Bolshoi’s staging of Swan Lake while tanks moved down the main streets of Moscow and Leningrad. Clowns from the KGB attempted to overturn Gorbachev and prevent the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Tanks and tutus marked the fall of the super-power, and Swan Lake became a funeral ode to it.
Maria Goltsman of Tartu University, in her work on semiotics and cultural symbolism, suggests that death is the central theme of Swan Lake. According to her, the collective conscience projects grief on the ballet and converts it into the whole nation’s catharsis. Catharsis, I wish. Optimism only reigns in the Bolshoi’s version of The Nutcrkacker.
NUTCRACKER AND THE RAT KING
In 2001, the Kirov (known as Mariinsky in Russia) Theater produced a different The Nutcracker, with designs, libretto, and costumes by Mikhail Shemyakin. In his version, the Nutcracker fights the Rat King—not a mouse king. Now, it is good to note here that the word “rat” has a very clear association with “ratting out” and, consequently, informers and KGB undercover agents, who coincidentally wear grey suits. The rat power is clearly associated with Putin, the former KGB, who restored the internal police system over the last fourteen years. The Russian president’s nicknames include “rat” and “Rat King.”
The Russian Orthodox Church, with its shiny paraphernalia, gilt and splendor, became a familiar backdrop for the political spectacle of the last decades. The incestuous love between the religious institution and totalitarian power that in its turn generally finances the latter goes back to the Russian Empire and works well to boost the national idea and the loyalty of the citizens.
Shemyakin’s Nutcrkacker reflects on this political situation. The party scene with its sausage-like people, human soup, dead boar’s heads, and rats, evokes the horrors of a slaughterhouse and reminds the audience about the dark historical moments of the Great Purge of the 1930–40ies when the KGB destroyed about a million and a half Russian citizens. In the second act funerary-black zombie snowflakes twirl to a requiem by a dead children’s choir. Next the world is turned into a sweet prison. The bars made of hard candy open and we are welcomed to Confitenburg. Giant flies crawl over the candycane swirling columns and onion shaped domes, and syrup is dripping from the skies. Gingerbread Mother in this version is a walking puppet theater, with Petroushkas, the puppets, literally brainwashing each other. In the finale the Prince and Masha, smiles petrified, freeze as life-size candies atop a Kremlin-like wedding cake, while the rats are gnawing on it. Happy Holidays!
The bleak and nightmarish rat world transformed into the treacherous land of mechanical toys, chemical sweets and lobotomized happiness is a perfect metaphor for Putin’s Russia.
The idea of the Rat King is planted in the collective unconscious. In 2010, Andrei Konchalovsky, an outstanding Russian-American director, made The Nutcracker in 3D, the film that failed miserably, mainly for its over-political message. American audience, fair enough, wanted their warm and cozy Christmas classics, not a piece of political satire dressed in lace.
THE BEAUTY AND THE BEASTS OF BALLET
In Russia, ballet and power always came hand in hand. Tsars and dictators alike patronized the major theaters. Art served the ruling regimes. The pomp and luxury of the imperial theater commented on the wealth and supremacy of the Emperor. The physical superiority of the Soviet dancers and athletes illustrated the military muscle of the Soviet Union. These days, the Russian accumulative achievement in music, choreography and dance support the nationalistic hysteria of Putin’s regime.
Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s iconic classical ballets, became the metaphors for my former country’s less than fairy tale journey through time. History turned those fairy tales into political symbols and caricatures.
SLEEPING BEAUTY: RUSSIA, IN COMA
Traditionally, in literature, fine art and pop-culture, Russia is represented as an unattainable female—a virginal bride, a cruel mother, or a sleeping beauty. The coma-like sleep, no doubt, is a good explanation for the country’s everlasting patience and benevolence to its executors and torturers. A passive and masochistic readiness to be abused and childlike, borderline idiotic, gullibility is often confused with “real Russian woman qualities” labeled as Christian sacrificial love and self-abandon.
Eyes closed, Russia lives in the dominion of dreams: myths and fairy-tales manufactured by a never-stopping propaganda machine. Brainwashed day and night by the TV (nicknamed “zombie box” in Russia), the majority of its population long lost the ability to see or think for itself. Cozy and warm, it is happily submersed in its collective dream and can be easily and conveniently manipulated by its rulers.
An obscene folk limerick and many forbidden cartoons reflect the current reign by Putin as follows:
My darling is in a coffin
I tip-toed to it
and I am fucking her.
Like it or not—
Sleep, my beauty.
With the economical and political situation worsening, 2015 is unlikely to bring a relief. Russia is facing a full blown economy crisis. The possible outcome of the dire economic crisis in a nuclear militaristic power overwhelmed by nationalism is no fairy-tale ending.
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