The White Duck Beneath the Waves

The White Duck illustrated by Ivan Bilibin

 
 

The Russian folktale Белая уточка (The White Duck) also bears some resemblance to the story of Лебединое озеро (Swan Lake) ballet, and may have been another possible source. The contemporaries of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky recalled the composer taking great interest in the life story of Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose tragic life had supposedly been marked by the sign of Swan and who—either consciously or not—was chosen as the prototype of the dreamer Prince Siegfried.

 
 

Audrey Hepburn received a Tony Award for her theatrical performance in the 1954 Broadway play Ondine, directed by Alfred Lunt

 
 

The original Swan Lake was based on the story of Ondine, a German myth with a theme common in Romanticism that was adapted by Hans Christian Andersen for his story The Little Mermaid.

In that German tale known as Sleep of Ondine, Ondine (from Latin: Unda, “a wave”)  is a water nymph. She was very beautiful and, like all nymphs, immortal. However, should she fall in love with a mortal man and bear his child, she would lose her immortality.

 
 

Undine beneath the waves of the Danube. Illustration by Arthur Rackham

 
 

Ondine eventually falls in love with a handsome knight, Sir Lawrence, and they are married. When they exchange vows, Lawrence vows to forever love and be faithful to her. A year after their marriage, Ondine gives birth to his child. From that moment on she begins to age. As Ondine’s physical attractiveness diminishes, Lawrence loses interest in his wife.

One afternoon, Ondine is walking near the stables when she hears the familiar snoring of her husband. When she enters the stable, she sees Lawrence lying in the arms of another woman. Ondine points her finger at him, which he feels as if kicked, waking him up with surprise. Ondine curses him, stating, “You swore faithfulness to me with every waking breath, and I accepted your oath. So be it. As long as you are awake, you shall have your breath, but should you ever fall asleep, then that breath will be taken from you and you will die!

In Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Past Things, Volume II: Madame Swann at Home, the narrator’s girlfriend Gilberte is referred to as Undine: “… she assumed that vague air, full of reticence and kept secrets…like the Undine that she was…”

And Genesis’ 1973 song Firth of Fifth (from the album Selling England by the Pound) makes reference to Ondinal Songs.

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McQueen and the Dancer

Flights of Fancy. Caroline Trentini wearing Alexander McQueen outfits from 2008 Fall/Winter collection. Photo: Arthur Elgort

 
 

 
 

Billy Elliot‘s (Stephen Daldry, 2000) original title was Dancer, but when they took the film to the Cannes Film Festival, there was another film called Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000), which won the Palmes D’Or, prompting confusion; indeed, Universal Studios called the directors, producers and writer up and congratulated them. They then realized they had to change the name and settled (‘rather lamely’, joked the writer) on ‘Billy Elliot‘.

 

“Younger Billy (Jamie Bell) and Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) are crossing a river. Billy plays a tape and they listen to the finale of Tchaikovski’s Swan Lake. This music has a yearning quality that suits Billy’s quest to move into the world. A policeman sits behind them as Mrs. Wilkinson tells the story of Swan Lake. The policeman is a reminder that the wide-spread concern of Billy’s community is still in the background and has yet to actively impact his move into a new world. The story of Swan Lake is a tale of the less powerful person being subject to stronger forces. The “heroes” of Swan Lake do manage to escape the forces that strive to overpower them, which suggests that Billy will do the same. The music reaches a crescendo as Billy looks up to the powerful frame overhead.”

 

The final scene of the film Billy Elliot shows the lead character, Billy, played by Adam Cooper, as an adult about to perform in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake as the lead Swan.

 
 

Matthew Bourne’s Swan Ballet (1995). The plot of the ballet revolves around a young crown prince, his distant mother, and his desire for freedom, characterized by a beautiful swan. This scenario is an unofficial interpretation as Matthew Bourne does not believe in scenarios for his productions and prefers the audience to interpret the story for themselves.The ballet is based loosely on the Russian romantic ballet Swan Lake, from which it takes the music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is taken along with the broad outline of the plot. Stylistic inspiration also came from the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds. The ballet is particularly known for having the parts of the swans danced by men rather than women. According to Bourne, “The idea of a male swan makes complete sense to me. The strength, the beauty, the enormous wingspan of these creatures suggests to the musculature of a male dancer more readily than a ballerina in her white tutu.”