Swan Lake has plenty of reasons to claim the title of most popular ballet of all time.The rapturous Tchaikovsky score, enticing drama, virtuoso dancing, and fairy tale setting blend together to make this wondrous full-length work an enduring classic. Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch's version of Swan Lake, scheduled for June 11-21, ranks among the most innovative and lavish versions of the masterwork danced on the international stage today.
At the center of the ballet is the Swan Queen, a symbol of womanhood at its purest. It is also a role that tests the ultimate artistic and technical levels of a ballerina. Many young girls in dance class dream of the day when they can portray the maiden who turns into a swan and captures the heart of a handsome prince.
But who is this enchanted creature and what happens to her? For those who are not familiar with the ballet's plot, a brief summary is in order. A young maiden named Odette is seized by the evil knight Rothbart, who places a spell on her. During the day, she is a transformed into the Swan Queen, and at night, back into a woman. One night at a lakeside Prince Siegried discovers Odette in human form and falls in love with her. But Rothbart summons her at sunrise and turns her back into a swan.
The following evening, the Queen hosts a ball for her son Siegfried to meet high society bachelorettes who are vying to be his wife. Rothbart appears with Odile, an impostor dressed in black who looks identical to Odette. Siegfried, fooled by the disguise, declares his love for her. Suddenly Odette appears in the crowd, and Siegfried realizes he has been tricked. Odette thinks Siegfried has betrayed her. In the final scene, Siegfried begs Odette for forgiveness and confronts the evil Rothbart. As for the ending, you'll have to see the ballet to find out how it all plays out.
The tug of war between light and dark provides the dual role of Odette/Odile with rich, meaty material. Mireille Hassenboehler, a principal dancer with Houston Ballet, danced Odette/Odile on the opening night of Welch's Swan Lake in 2006. "Odette, the White Swan, is very vulnerable, yet very protective of Siegried in that there is a clear threat to him," says Hassenboehler. "Odile is a temptress, but she's more sensual than mean. She is appealing and alluring and brings a little sex into ballet."
Hassenboehler had danced in a previous production of Swan Lake, staged for Houston Ballet by Ben Stevenson, so she had built a foundation for the role. As part of her research at the Library for the Performing Arts in New York, she watched many different videos of ballerinas giving disparate interpretations of Odette/Odile. Margot Fonteyn of the Royal Ballet, for example, gave a famously tender portrayal of the role, while the Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova was a sinuous, exotic swan.
In the current Houston Ballet production of Swan Lake, Welch has emphasized the act of transformation from maiden to swan - an element not present in traditional stagings of the ballet. Nonetheless, the choreography so often associated with the classic is intact. "It has all the bones of the king of ballet: Swan Lake. But the storyline is different," says Hassenboehler. The pacing is also more geared toward 21st century tastes. "The action time is sped up. There are no pauses in between the White Swan pas de deux, no time to breathe and bow," explains Hassenboehler. "There is very little time to catch your breath and keep going for the finale. That is very challenging: not to mention those 32 fouettes," she adds, referring to the wickedly difficult whipping turns that Odile (the Black Swan) executes in the coda.
For inspiration for his Swan Lake, Welch turned to the paintings of Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse. In particular, the painting The Lady of Shallot, based on a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson, depicts a forlorn woman alone in a candle-lit boat. In the ballet, the women, trapped by Rothbart in limbo between water and land, are dressed in long, flowing gowns as well as traditional tutus.The designer Kristian Fredrickson captures the Romantic era of Waterhouse with his stunning sets and costumes.
Despite its overwhelming success over time, Swan Lake was deemed a failure at its premiere in 1877 at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In fact, Tchaikovsky never lived to see his monumental score matched by choreography of critical acclaim. The original production with a libretto partially devised by Tchaikovsky was choreographed by Julius Reisinger.
It was not until 1895 at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg that the successful full-length version of Swan Lake, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, appeared and provided the prototype for subsequent productions. The role of Odette/Odile was danced by the Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani, noted by a critic at the time as "the supreme ideal of plastic movement." It was Legnani who introduced the 32 fouettes into the Black Swan pas de deux.
Tchaikovsky's symphonic score, a revolutionary idea for ballet at a time when one dimensionality ruled most of the ballet's music, has provided the sturdy backbone for Swan Lake. But it is the full theatrical experience of the piece that has brought audiences back into the theater to see it for over 125 years.
Through metaphor, mesmerizing choreography, and the magic of the stage, the ballet and its Swan Queen speak in ways that is hard to match. "Audiences are enchanted by the ballet," says Hassenboehler. "It contains everything that is beautiful about ballet: its tragedy, its redemption. It leads you and you get caught up in it. It takes you where you need to go."
For Swan Lake tickets and further information, visit Houston Ballet.
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor to Dance Magazine and is the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions).