Crashing Through the Pond:
Recreating Swan Lake with Ásgeir Helgi Magnússon & Cameron Corbett
“Who are these women, these swans?” asks Ásgeir Helgi Magnússon. “Why are they there? How does it feel living in a pond?” These simple yet enigmatic questions are at the crux of what he and Cameron Corbett are in the midst of asking as they deconstruct Swan Lake. Meeting in Studio 2 of Dansverkstæðið, the two are in the process of researching a new approach to the canonical ballet, specifically in purpose of creating a segmented piece for the graduating class of Listaháskóli Íslands’ contemporary dance department.
“Basically we got a grant for research which we have been doing to create the foundation for a piece, distantly related to Swan Lake,” says Ásgeir. “It was part of this covid initiative last summer. We were thinking of working in the autumn but then we were in a full lockdown, so it kinda got postponed.” Now with the restrictions nearly entirely lifted (at pres. time,) they have finally been able to enter the studio to create material, write a script and prepare for a presentation.
As the grant allows them to research and also demands finished work, they are using the platform to create a prototype for the ballet as well as working on the libretto. “Now we’re trying to figure out the functional part of it with the students,” says Cameron, “but everything that doesn’t apply directly to this piece we’re also putting down to put in the libretto for the whole ballet. But we’re just working on what we can do with these eight people.” These eight graduating dancers will perform the first part of their prototype, representing the questions asked by Ásgeir, and eliminating the central male figures from the mix. “We’re looking more into the swans themselves rather than the prince and the bad guy,” he says. “Those characters for this specific part don’t matter.”
Noting that the story of the ballet has no historical origins but rather was written specifically for the original ballet, Cameron delves into deeper questions about what it means to be turned into a creature by some vile person. “I think it’s also about addiction, maybe,” he says. “Things that we do to ourselves that get us stuck in a rut. So you get stuck in something and you think this guy is gonna save you from it, but only you can save yourself. So maybe it’s about addiction. Of course we’re doing absolutely no responsible psychiatric research, because the artist’s job is to ask questions [laughs].”
The original kernels for their idea to produce a version of Swan Lake came to them years ago when they were both with Íslenski Dansflokkurinn, and Cameron noted that unlike in North America, they have no single annual large production set to live music that becomes a cultural institution. “In the US we have The Nutcracker and it pays for the whole season and everyone knows the dance company because of The Nutcracker,” he says. “Here, the dance company is legally a cultural institution but I don’t feel like they’ve done the reason everyone wants to go. So I thought that they should have a full-length ballet to live music. Swan Lake, let’s do that.” However they had no intention of doing a straight-forward traditional version of the ballet. Their interpretation is modernised, queered and puts local cultural spins into the script. “A drunk guy comes home, he falls into the pond—because that’s a big Icelandic fear, to fall into the ocean,” Cameron laughs.
“Four o’clock in the morning walking home…,” Ásgeir jumps in. “He just falls through and into some sort of a world filled with bitchy birds!” He explains that within their full piece, the “he” being Siegfried would actually be a “they”, potentially reframing the gendered tropes that go along with the original text. “We have an Icelandic name Sigfríður and that’s a female name,” he goes on. “In Icelandic the ballet is called Svanavatnið and Svani is an old Icelandic masculine word for a female. Svanni is a woman, but a masculine name.”
The part of the prototype that they are creating for the graduating class is just one fragment of the whole—“We consider this a prologue, or maybe a second act”—but even once they complete their libretto, they look at it as somewhat of a pipe dream. “The fantasy is to have the whole evening with the symphony but that’s never gonna happen,” says Cameron. “So it’s fun that that’s the goal, so the audience shares this vision of the grand ballet, but they’re just gonna see a deconstruction of it. Until twenty years from now, when I’m dead.”
A week after our talk, they will begin their work with the graduating class for ten weeks of translating ideas onto new bodies. Their process of preparation for this is a fine balance of coming up with stuff. “It’s like being a psychic,” says Cameron. “Like, what do we need in a week? We don’t know. And not to come up with too much. They don’t have my body, they have their bodies. We’re more capable in the practical development so the research is more trying to prepare. We’re learning, like, oh, what would we want for it? It’s trying to make this valid and trying to use it for what it is but we don’t really know.”
In the studio, the preparations play between the physical and the cerebral. “We’ve basically been kind of by the desk, but then walking into the space, and back to the desk,” says Ásgeir. “Kind of trying things out, seeing if they work, seeing if we want to take, what do we want to scratch from the libretto, what’s relevant? How do aspects of the story correlate to today for their reality?” Now they are on the edge of anticipation to start working with the dancers to put these ideas to the test and seeing what works and what doesn’t on a bigger scale, with more people, seeing how the group works, and seeing how these birds will take flight.