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Swan Trafficking

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Photo by Virginia Trudeau

A lovely maiden is picking flowers around a lake when a large, beaked bird man standing on a nearby pile of boulders uses evil magic to capture her. With his raggedy, outsize wings he makes beckoning gestures, luring her toward his body — futilely, she resists! — until she disappears under a thicket of gray and brown feathers. There’s a pause. And then, gliding onto the lake from behind the boulders, a swan appears.

Watching Nevada Ballet Theatre’s terrifying rendition of this opening scene to Swan Lake one weekend in October, I leaned over to my date and whispered, “I just realized… this is a story about sex trafficking.” 

She looked at me, wide-eyed, and nodded. It seemed obvious in the way the villain, Von Rothbart, stood over the heroine, Odette, and literally enfolded her into his body — wings pressing her toward his hips and legs. The dancer must have slipped into a trap door positioned just under his feet, making it look as if she dissolved into him. Loss of identity, of self.

The rest of the ballet confirmed this reading. It’s a pretty simple story: A young prince, Siegfried, is turning 21 and his mom, the queen, wants him to get married. Despite her pushing princesses from far and wide on him, he falls in love with Odette, whom he’s spied changing into her human form while he’s hunting swans by the lake. Odette likes Siegfried back, but the whole part-time bird thing is a problem. Lucky for them, there’s an out: Von Rothbart’s spell can be broken by a promise of true love. 

The story seems to be swimming toward this happy conclusion when Odette appears to show up — albeit clad in black, rather than her usual white — at the party where Siegfried is supposed to pick his bride. Alas, Von Rothbart has pulled a fast one. The black swan is actually his daughter Odile, disguised as Odette. Siegfried is fooled into declaring his undying love for the wrong girl. Distraught, Odette, in her human form, throws herself off the boulders into the lake. Siegfried follows her to his death. And this is after Von Rothbart has laid waste to the village.

You see, love isn’t the way out of sex trafficking; it’s the way in. Victim advocates frequently tell of traffickers posing as boyfriends or employers using gifts and money to lure women, particularly minors, into exploitative relationships. By the time the girls realize what’s happened, they’re trapped. And the Von Rothbarts of trafficking rings will exploit anyone, including family, and do anything to keep their human possessions in line. Von Rothbart torching Siegfried’s town is a searing example of the trafficker’s wrath. How dare anyone mess with his business? In this grim scenario, Odette’s view of death as the way out is understandable.

My reading of the ballet is undoubtedly informed by local current events. Nevada has a sex trafficking problem, and it seems to be getting worse. In 2018, the human trafficking hotline reported 313 cases in the state, up 100 from the previous year, and triple the number of five years earlier. Nevada ties with Pennsylvania for ninth-most cases in the nation, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. As for sex trafficking in particular, the FBI rescued 14 children and arrested 33 suspected traffickers — the highest total in the U.S., according to the Review-Journal’s reporting on the operation — in August. U.S. Attorney Nicholas Trutanich told the Nevada Independent, “The department considers it a priority area as seen by the numbers.” 

I’d seen the ballet last time NBT staged it, in early 2017, though that had been the version of famous prima ballerina-turned choreographer Cynthia Gregory. This time around, it was Texas Ballet Theater’s artistic director Ben Stevenson putting moves to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score as guest choreographer. And it was a completely different experience for me, almost like a completely different ballet.

What I most distinctly recall from Gregory’s version was Alyssa Dale’s interpretation of Odette-Odile. Dale heavily infuses her dance style with acting techniques, using her face, arms, and hands to convey emotions. The chemistry she and co-star Steven Goforth ginned up made you believe, 100 percent, that they were in a love worth dying for. While all dancers act to some extent, Mirella Costa Neto, this year’s Odette-Odile, played the part more athletically, conveying the heroine’s plight through gut-wrenching technical feats. Her 22 fouettés (whipping turns on one toe) as the frenzied Odile, desperate to win over Siegfried (or face her father’s wrath), brought the crowd to its feet. And I couldn’t have been the only one wondering exactly how many dozens of times she could get her lifted leg into perfectly vertical position for yet another arabesque penché (balanced on toe, torso horizontal to the earth) during her pas de deux (duets) with Siegfried.

The physicality of Neto’s performance fit into my interpretation of Swan Lake as a sex trafficking metaphor. She seemed less heartbroken than pissed off, determined to escape, one way or another. At her back is the corps de ballet, a flock of “swans,” or her fellow prisoners. They’re all identical in coiffure and costume (Odette is more blinged out, so you can tell her apart), and they move in perfect unison, not so much to de-individualize them as to show their solidarity. When Siegried pursues Odette, they hide her. When she expresses interest in him, they support her. When she expresses doubt, they shield her. Whatever she’s going through, they’re there for it. And their signature number, in Act I, Scene II, is among the ballet’s two or three most emotional, filled with sorrow and longing, attitudes alternating between labored, flat-footed hops, heads drooping, and airy, allegro leaps, arms encircling one another’s waists. In their horrific situation, they find common cause — sometimes, even, hope. 

Swan Lake is a classic tragedy, so it’s no groundbreaking revelation to attach it to the contemporary scourge of sex trafficking. After all, kidnapping, coercion, and violence are the basic elements in any rendition of the story. What would be nice, now, is a rewrite of the age-old tale with a new ending. One that amplifies the strength of Odette and her peers, empowers the villagers to come to her aid, and doesn’t include her death as the only way out. 

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