Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake: Immortal and Model

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake: Immortal and Model

It was called the last romantic production of European culture. How was one of the most famous ballets in the world created and transformed over the centuries?

History of creation: how a children's ballet turned into an innovative production

In 1871, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote a one-act children's ballet called The Lake of the Swans. The composer presented his work to the public in the Kamenka estate.

Four years later, in 1875, he received an order from the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters to write a ballet. Back then, it was unusual, to say the least, because composers of that level didn’t write ballets. However, Pyotr Ilyich agreed and worked on the music for about a year, at the same time creating Symphony No. 3.

In the libretto by Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Geltser, the love story was based on a German legend and fairy tales having a similar plot, where an evil spell turned a beautiful girl into a snow-white swan and only the power of love could transform her back to human form.

There is no consensus as to what was the source of inspiration for the composer. It is known that Pyotr Ilyich once rested in the Cherkasy region, where he admired nature and saw graceful swans. Tchaikovsky also visited Bavaria where he saw the castle of King Ludwig II in Neuschwanstein. This fact inspired ballet artists, who often used the image of a Gothic castle for the stage scenery. By the way, this Bavarian king was considered to be the prototype of Prince Siegfried.

The score of the ballet turned out to be revolutionary in its novelty. It is known that the composer partially quoted his own opera Undina, which he had abandoned earlier. However, the music of Swan Lake seemed original and unusual. At that time, ballet music was very simple and played the role of rhythmic accompaniment to what was happening on the stage. Tchaikovsky, with his symphonic style, created powerful lyrical themes that continued throughout the whole ballet. The premiere of Swan Lake took place in 1877. The lead part was supposed to be performed by prima ballerina Anna Sobeshchanskaya, but she refused and even quarreled with Tchaikovsky due to the lack of a solo number in the third act. Later, the composer nevertheless agreed to add a solo dance to the third act.

This production by choreographer Wenzel Reisinger on stage of the Bolshoi Theater was approved by neither the audience nor the critics. It stayed on the poster banners for only 8 seasons. The critic Herman Laroche wrote:

“Musically, Swan Lake is the best ballet I've ever heard... As for the dances, Swan Lake is, perhaps, the most official, boring and poor ballet of those that are given in Russia."

Although contemporaries noted the work of the set designer Karl Valts. This St. Petersburg artist and designer worked on the visual accompaniment of the second and fourth acts of Swan Lake. He created a mountainous landscape on stage and was also in charge of lighting during the performance. Karl Valts was an innovator, having developed a technology for using water vapor. This way he managed to create the illusion of fog over the lake.

It is known that when writing the final scene, Tchaikovsky consulted with Valts and discussed in detail the storm that would break out on the stage. Later, the artist wrote in his memoirs:

“When the ballet was being staged, P.I. Tchaikovsky actively participated in the design of the sets and decorations, and we had many conversations about this. Pyotr Ilyich was particularly concerned about the final act. In the storm scene, when the lake bursts its banks and floods the whole stage, Tchaikovsky insisted that we recreate a real whirlpool — the branches and boughs of the surrounding trees were to break off, fall into the water, and be swept away by the waves. This picture turned out to be very successful and effective, and Pyotr Ilyich was quite taken with it. After the storm, by way of an apotheosis, one could see how day was breaking, and as the curtain fell the trees were illuminated by rays from the rising sun.”

The new birth of Swan Lake: the Petipa-Ivanov version

It took the ballet almost 20 years to "mature". In 1895, in St. Petersburg, Swan Lake was given again. Tchaikovsky didn’t live to see the triumph of his brainchild. The choreographer Marius Petipa and his assistant Lev Ivanov were responsible for the production; the libretto was written by the composer's brother Modest Ilyich. The fate of this ballet wasn’t easy as well: the premiere had to be postponed due to the death of Emperor Alexander III and official mourning. 

In this production, music and choreography clashed effectively: Ivanov staged the scenes on the lake, added symphony to the images. The swans got rid of their false wings and became even more beautiful. It was in this production that the "arm dances" and the famous Dance of the Little Swans emerged. The main characters acquired deeper personalities: their duet was added to the performance. The main villain - Rothbart - became birdlike too, his resemblance to an owl was reflected in the text of the production. Swan Lake gained a new level of psychological depth, along with the theme of duality, the conflict of first love and deceit.

The music also changed in the new version of the production. Conductor Riccardo Drigo treated the material creatively: he rearranged the musical fragments and added new ones.

The St. Petersburg version of the ballet differed from the Moscow one in visual solutions too. The set was created by the artist Mikhail Bocharov, an academician of landscape painting. Unlike Reisinger's production, the second and fourth acts took place in different places. The scenery was different too. In the second scene, Bocharov depicted "a wilderness on the shore of the lake", in fact following the libretto and reproducing the scenery by Karl Valts. And in the fourth picture, when showing "a deserted area near Swan Lake", the artist was minimalistic. The stage was almost empty: there were only rocks and ruins of the castle in a distance, and above this landscape was the night starry sky.

Eventually, it was this version of Swan Lake with the changed score, libretto, musical accompaniment and choreography that became the reference for all subsequent productions. The production by Marius Petipa became canonical: it was this Swan Lake that was appreciated by the ballet connoisseurs all over the world. Ballet dancer and expert Vera Krasovskaya wrote about this version of the performance:

"Discoveries made by Lev Ivanov in Swan Lake are an ingenious "breakthrough" into the 20th century."

Ballet content: when the oath of eternal love is stronger than evil magic and the elements

The Swan Lake play consists of two acts, each of which is made of two pictures. By the way, the first libretto for the ballet looked ironic in places. The text contained, for example, remarks like "as it always happens in ballets..." In other editions, the first act is preceded by a prologue: the evil genius Rothbart and his retinue appear in the park before Princess Odette. He offers the heart and hand to the Princess and after being rejected and, in revenge, turns her into a white swan.

The first act of Swan Lake opens with a scene in an old German castle. Here, Prince Siegfried is celebrating his coming of age. His friends, courtiers and his mother, the Sovereign Princess, congratulate him. Siegfried is knighted - it is no coincidence that many theater critics compared the plot of the ballet with a chivalric romance.

The prince is surrounded by beautiful girls, but he is not ready to choose any of them. Dreaming of true love, Siegfried doesn’t notice that the party has ended, the guests have left. The prince follows his fantasies and finds himself in a new place.

The second picture of the first act opens with a change of scenery. Siegfried is on the shore of a lake, where he sees visions of swan girls. One of them, the most beautiful, is Odette. Only true love and an oath of eternal fidelity can break the spell and return her human form forever. The prince, sincerely ready to save the girl, confesses his feelings to her.

At the beginning of the second act of Tchaikovsky's ballet, the scenery changes again. Now, there is a luxurious ballroom on the stage, among the guests of the ball are princesses from different countries who have arrived to please Prince Siegfried. He has to choose a bride, but his love for Odette is stronger.

There is an uninvited guest at the ball, it is the evil genius, who appeared in the guise of a knight together with his daughter Odile and a swan retinue. The prince is fascinated: the girl looks so much like Odette! Siegfried makes his choice, he is ready to marry the guest. The oath of eternal fidelity has been broken, which means that the enchanted Odette will die. The prince realizes that he has become a victim of a cruel deception, and rushes into the woods following the elusive image of a white swan.

The fourth picture returns the characters to the lake shore. The night is falling, and Odette's thoughts are alarming, because Siegfried has broken his oath. The prince begs her for forgiveness and receives it. However, Odette is no longer in charge of her fate.

The culmination of the production is a storm breaking out on the lake as a metaphor for the struggle between good and evil. The evil genius opposes all his power to the force of love - the image of a beautiful white swan escapes Siegfried. With the final chords, he sees the sunrise on the shore of the magical lake alone.

The ballet also has a different ending, where the power of love breaks the evil spell and the swan turns into a girl. In contemporary productions of Swan Lake, this ending can also be found. During the time of its existence, the ballet has accumulated many interpretations and plot options.

Life of the ballet over the centuries: how Swan Lake was changing

Subsequent productions brought new details to the ballet. The famous flapping of the swan arms-wings was invented by the ballerina and teacher Agrippina Vaganova. In this performance, the enchanted girls were replaced by mythical birds, in whose guise Siegfried "saw" female features.

Swan Lake staged by choreographer Konstantin Sergeev was given in the Mariinsky for decades. The choreographer invented a lot in the performance himself, but nevertheless kept some significant moments, including the "swan scenes" of his predecessor, Lev Ivanov.

Choreographer Vladimir Burmeister created his own version of the ballet in 1953. He retained only the episode with the enchanted swans on the lake unchanged. In this author's version, love wins in the finale: the spell is broken, the sorcerer has lost. Burmeister also added an introductory episode where Rothbart transforms the princess into a bird, emerging right out of the rock.

The ballet Swan Lake by choreographer Yuri Grigorovich was first staged at the Bolshoi Theater in 1969. The choreographer summarized the experience of Petipa, Ivanov and Gorsky. Interestingly, Grigorovich wanted to see the finale of his production tragic, but had to agree to an ideologically correct "happy end". Years passed before the choreographer had a chance to embody his original idea on stage. For Grigorovich, the tragic context of the plot channeled into the motive of duality: not only Odette has an alter ego. The evil genius somehow becomes a "reflection" for Siegfried.

In 1984, Rudolf Nureyev presented his version of the ballet on the Paris stage. A distinctive feature of this production was the shift of the author's focus to Prince Siegfried. There are many male dances in Nureyev’s ballet, while the traditionally leading female parts fade into the background. At the end of the last century, Siegfried was often rendered in productions as some kind of Childe Harold of the 20th century. He feels like a stranger in the luxury of his palace and imagines magical worlds.

At the end of the 20th century, choreographers' interest in Swan Lake didn’t fade away. Less and less remained of the canonical production, the ballet acquired author's interpretations and modern meanings. Modern and contemporary dance were added to the techniques of classical ballet.

Thus, in 1976, John Neumeier staged a production of Illusions like Swan Lake for the Hamburg Ballet. This is already a postmodern interpretation, where the king of Bavaria Ludwig II became the main figure on the stage. It was his castle that once inspired Tchaikovsky to write Swan Lake. In this production, the king, insane about his aesthetics, is surrounded by characters that people familiar with the original source are able to recognize.

In the 1987 Swedish production by Mats Ek, the characters are not who they say they are. Odile seems to be hiding behind the mask of Odette, the evil sorceress pretends to be a sorcerer. Bald dancers as swans caused a mixed reaction from the audience. In the British production of 1995, all the swans are men; and in the author's performance by the choreographer Radu Poklitaru of 2013, the swan is turned into the boy Siegfried.

One of the modern productions of Swan Lake was staged by Alexander Ekman in 2014 for the Norwegian Ballet. The author was inspired by the very first Russian version and recreated the history of that production. Besides, a real lake appeared in the ballet - it was a unique water scenery.

Along with the radical author's interpretations, in recent years, choreographers have intensified their striving to get closer to the original source, to return the very images of the 19th century to the stage. In 2016, Alexei Ratmansky presented his own version of the ballet retrospective. In his performance, ballerinas wear tutus as if from the century before last, black swans dance in the corps de ballet of the last act, make-up and musical accompaniment look like they are from a century and a half ago.

Over the years, the plot and images of Tchaikovsky's classical ballet inspired choreographers from different countries, gave birth to new metaphors and meanings.

Swan Lake remains modern and in demand - all thanks to the combination of Tchaikovsky's brilliant symphonic music and a rich storyline full of images and metaphors. Music expert Yuri Slonimsky once wrote: 

“Swan Lake was, perhaps, the last romantic piece <...> in the entire European culture”.

Swan Lake symbols: metaphors and images that are clear to everyone

As befits a great work, the Swan Lake ballet has acquired recognizable symbols and meanings during its long stage life. Many of them are familiar even to those who have never seen the production with their own eyes.

Thus, the lead role of Odette-Odile has long become one of the most desirable parts for classical ballerinas in the world. This role, worthy of a real prima ballerina, was danced in different years by true ballet stars. The name of Pierina Legnani is inscribed in the history of the production. The Italian ballerina is considered one of the best performers of this role. She danced Odette on stage of the Mariinsky Theater and even performed 32 fouettés with special grace. Great Maya Plisetskaya was dancing the part of Odette-Odile for 30 years - this is a record.

The famous Dance of the Little Swans, created by the choreographer Lev Ivanov, has become a real symbol and the first association to ballet art even for those who are far from the world of classical dance.

There is another Swan Lake association known to the people living in the Soviet and post-Soviet space. Many remember that all the TV channels were showing this particular ballet during the August 1991 coup.

Every epoch endowed Swan Lake with its own meanings, but in all variations this ballet and music attracted the attention of the audience.