The Symphony of Dance: Three Groundbreaking Ballets by Tchaikovsky

The Symphony of Dance: Three Groundbreaking Ballets by Tchaikovsky

Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker are not just productions loved by millions. These three ballets by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky opened new properties of classical dance art, embodying the unity of music and dance. How were these masterpieces created and what is the significance of each of them for the ballet world?

Swan Lake: a modest premiere and an unshakable ballet canon

In 1875, Tchaikovsky got an order from the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters - to write a ballet called Lake of Swans. In about two years, the ballet premiered on stage of the Moscow Bolshoi Theater, but it didn’t gain resonance among the public. Eight seasons later, the production by choreographer Wenzel Reisinger was declared unsuccessful and removed from the repertoire.

The Swan story got its second chance more than 20 years after the death of the composer. In 1895, the audience of the Mariinsky Theater saw the ballet staged by Marius Petipa and his assistant Lev Ivanov.  It was this version of the ballet that became classical and put Swan Lake on a par with the masterpieces of world ballet. Throughout the 20th century, Petipa-Ivanov's choreography actually remained unchanged.

The Sleeping Beauty: a luxurious production with many variations

In 1889, Tchaikovsky received an order to write music and a libretto based on the plot of the famous fairy tale by Charles Perrault, but the task was different from Swan Lake. Choreographer Marius Petipa wrote down to the smallest detail what music he wants to hear in the play, so the composer had a complete plan with prologue and three acts.

The Sleeping Beauty was first seen on stage of the Mariinsky Theater in 1890. The audience appreciated the beauty of the production: the new ballet cost its producers a sight of money. 9 years later, The Sleeping Beauty was transferred to the stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

Unlike the canonical Swan Lake, which was almost never reworked in later years, the fate of The Sleeping Beauty turned out to be different. During the 20th century, theater audiences saw the ballet in different versions by the same choreographer - Yuri Grigorovich. And Sergei Diaghilev opened The Sleeping Beauty to the Western public. In the 21st century, the stage life of the ballet continues: in 2011, the Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato presented his version on stage of the Mikhailovsky Theater, and Alexei Ratmansky staged the new Sleeping Beauty at the American Ballet Theater.

The Nutcracker: a world-renowned long-lived ballet

The order from the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters, which Tchaikovsky received in 1890, was also unusual. The composer was tasked with writing a one-act opera and a two-act ballet to be staged in one evening. The libretto by Marius Petipa was already ready: again it was a detailed plan with the ballet master's exposition.

The premiere of The Nutcracker took place in December 1892, after that the ballet became a real long-liver of the Mariinsky Theater, remaining in the repertoire for over 30 years. It underwent several significant changes during this time. In 1919, Alexander Gorsky presented The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi Theater. This version of the ballet was recognized as innovative by critics and the public, but they didn’t like it as much. In 1929, choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov presented an updated production, where the main character was named Masha. And yet the version that has survived through the centuries and is closest to the canon is considered to be the production by Yuri Grigorovich, which is still on stage of the Bolshoi.

In 1954, choreographer George Balanchine introduced Tchaikovsky's ballet to New Yorkers. Tchaikovsky's third ballet gave space for experimentation for another great dancer and choreographer, Rudolf Nureyev. He altered Petipa's libretto significantly, making the plot more gothic, which would certainly had pleased the author of the fairy tale The Nutcracker - Hoffmann.

Tchaikovsky is the reformer: why are his ballets unique?

In his three ballets, Tchaikovsky acted as a reformer. Music has ceased to be an auxiliary element of ballet setting the rhythm for the dance. Instead, ballet performances acquired a truly operatic, symphonic sound.

Tchaikovsky's ballets have retained the structure with numbers, but at the same time each number became a big musical form, subject to the laws of symphonic development. Many musical "segments" are well known as independent musical and choreographic works. Everyone here surely remembers Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker or Dance of the Little Swans from Swan Lake. Ballet music by Tchaikovsky is permeated with a single line of dynamic development within the limits of an individual number, scene, act and the entire performance. This integrity contains the genius of the three great ballets.