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Culture Zohn: A Girl's Guide to Love and Ballet: Swan Lake

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If you say the word ballet to most people, up will pop an image of a girl in a white tutu looking vaguely swan-like, standing on her toes.

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This is probably because the most famous ballet of all time -- and for my money, with good reason -- is Swan Lake, the 19th century work by Tchaikovsky that I can hum for you so deeply is it embedded.

Tchaikovsky wrote this masterwork between 1875 and 1876, and though some think of it as over-the-top and filled with romantic excess, I have never been able to get enough of its lush, stirring movements. It's on my iPod, and I often play it when I either want to be uplifted, or in some cases, to have a good cry.

Part of the reason of course is the perfectly tragic ballet that goes along with it. The story of Odette, the princess who has been cursed by an evil sorcerer Von Rothbart to live as a swan, and her doomed love for Prince Siegfried has been performed continuously all over the world since its debut. I grew up with the Act II highlights that George Balanchine edited for the NY City Ballet in years when story ballets were anathema, and he cut the top and tail, the acts with the kitschy Russian soldiers and the Queen Mother parading around and the peasant girls vying for the Prince's attention. Those parts, the more Grand Opera, posy, presentational moments, are in stark contrast with the scenes of swan maidens in formation, flying overhead or darting through glades of trees and atop haunting craggy rocks.

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But now I love the American Ballet Theater version by Kevin McKenzie, the full monty of queens, maidens, maypoles and swans. Balanchine's version cut the denouement when the Prince, who is forced to choose a bride, sees Odile, dressed in stunning black, the daughter Von Rothbart has brought to tempt him. She is beautiful and flirtatious, a dark version of Odette, and Siegfried is indeed spellbound. He is on the verge of asking for her hand when a vision of the suffering Odette appears and he realizes he has been duped by the canny magician.

On Saturday night, Nina Ananiashvili, the ballet diva and one of the world's most beloved Odette-Odiles finally laid down her feathery headwrap in NY. It seems unfathomable that she is bidding us farewell as she looked every bit the part and did not falter on her fouettes -- the famously challenging turns.

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Nina Ananiashvili and Angel Corella in Swan Lake. Photo: MIRA.

The Russians have pretty much had a lock on famous Swan maidens and this is because they get their Tchaikovsky in the water over there. I was as enraptured as ever by her elegance and her heart and thought both her Prince, Angel Corella and her master, Mercelo Gomes were commensurately inspiring.

Though I have been at the Met Opera house this year for glorious performances, there was really nothing to compare with this outpouring for a beloved dancer's culmination. After a sustained ovation, flashing cameras, homages by other dancers and a floral shower, Ananiashvili crossed the stage one last time, her back to us, facing her fellow swans and colleagues. It's those arms, those undulating boneless-looking snakelike marvels, that are deservedly renown.

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Nina Ananiashvili in Swan Lake. Photo: Nancy Ellison.

And here we are once again in the nineteenth century dilemma of the good girl v. bad girl , in this case rendered in stark black and white. The good girl finally gets the guy but they are a double suicide to be reunited in the afterlife.

It's not easy being in love.