"The Quintessential Ballet": Tschaikovsky's Swan Lake

Classic Arts Features   "The Quintessential Ballet": Tschaikovsky's Swan Lake
Peter Martins' production of the full-length classic Swan Lake returns to New York City Ballet this February. Robert Sandla further discusses the origins of the iconic piece.


Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky, its composer, confessed that he wrote the score "partly for the money." Pauline Karpakova, its ballerina, inserted steps and routines to music from her previous hits. Julius Reisinger, its choreographer, was a genial hack. And the story was an overheated affair revolving around a dreaming Prince, a sinister sorcerer, a deeply romantic Princess somehow turned into a swan, and a scheming temptress, all set in some vaguely medieval Nevernever Land. The ballet is, of course, Swan Lake. But not the Swan Lake we know today.

The first version of Swan Lake, which premiered in Moscow in 1877, was, if not an absolute failure, then a thin and ungainly affair. Far from the innovative reinvention of traditional ballet that Tschaikovsky had hoped his first ballet score would be, Reisinger's Swan Lake was performed 33 times at the Bolshoi Theater until 1883, and subject to endless tampering.

Tschaikovksy's death in 1893 brought about a thorough revision of Swan Lake. By then, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, ballet masters at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, had worked hand in hand with the composer to create The Nutcracker (1890) and The Sleeping Beauty (1892), and had propelled the art form forward. Tschaikovsky had been widely loved, and his death sparked fresh interest in his music. A memorial performance of excerpts from his works was mounted at the Maryinsky in 1894. The performance included scenes from operas, as well as Act II of Swan Lake, newly staged by Lev Ivanov.

Swan Lake suddenly looked good, and in 1895 the Maryinsky restaged the entire ballet. Petipa staged Act I, set at Prince Siegfried's 21st birthday celebration, and Act III, a string of divertissements centered around a showstopping pas de deux for Siegfried and Odile. Ivanov choreographed the wild poetry of Act II, the lakeside scene where the Prince and Odette first meet and fall in love, and Act IV, full of storms and portents and doom. Together Petipa and Ivanov created a choreo _ graphic structure that mirrors the work's great themes: innocence and knowledge, responsibility and rebellion, good and evil.

The St. Petersburg premiere in 1895 was a triumph. Same essential storyline, same vaguely medieval setting. But the resonances were profound. Ivanov built Acts II and IV on musical principles, following the symphonic surges of the score. The corps de ballet was deployed not just in variously picturesque groups: a sort of human garland around the principals: but as an echo of Odette's mood, a shadow of her soul. Ivanov's poetry was balanced by Petipa's opening scene and the feverish glitter of Act III, complete with a breathtaking display of sheer virtuosity.

Today, Swan Lake is, if not the ultimate, then certainly the quintessential ballet. It has entered popular culture and like any durable classic, Swan Lake has frequently been altered to reflect the temper of its times. We've seen thoughtful Princes and callow Princes, sad Princes and gay Princes, introspective, Hamlet-like Princes and crazy, Ludwig-of-Bavaria Princes. We've seen psychological Swan Lakes and Soviet Swan Lakes, postmodern Swan Lakes and Broadway Swan Lakes. But even through the scrim of extraneous details, Swan Lake always shone through.

In 1951 George Balanchine choreographed a one-act version of Swan Lake that retained the essential Ivanov and captured the fire of the complete work, in a 35-minute production that many feel saves the soul of Swan Lake while jettisoning such extras as the mime sequences. Balanchine revised the piece over the years, restoring the original entrance, deleting the 19th century arranger Riccardo Drigo's musical interpolations, expanding the role of the corps. And the production has been given different scenery and costumes.

As part of the Company's 50th Anniversary season, in the spring of 1999 New York City Ballet danced the first complete Swan Lake in its history, choreographed by Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins, after Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and George Balanchine. Martins originally choreographed this production in 1996 for the Royal Danish Ballet, from whose repertory the work had long been absent. The program credit: Martins, after Petipa, Ivanov, and Balanchine: speaks volumes about roots and succession, continuity and change.

Like Petipa and Ivanov for the 1895 production, music was the motivation for Martins' Swan Lake, which returns to NYC B's repertory this winter. "This music belongs in this house," says Martins. "It's a great score, with music that breaks your heart. This is Tschaikovsky's house, as well as Balanchine's."

"Just as I did with The Sleeping Beauty, I did extensive research in preparation for Swan Lake," says Martins. "I read everything that was written about Swan Lake. I got every videotape known to man of every production, from the Bolshoi, from Britain, from France: from everybody. And I studied them. And what became clear very quickly was that there's very little Petipa in most productions of The Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. Ironically, it appeared that Russian productions discarded more of their work than Western ones. I wanted to retain what I considered the best of Petipa and Ivanov. At the same time, when there were things that I thought could be updated a little more I introduced myself. And obviously, Balanchine was a major influence on me with respect to Tschaikovsky."

"In Act II, for example, there are passages that you will recognize as being the Balanchine treatment of Ivanov's Act II," Martins continues. "I did not want to compete with Balanchine because his treatment is best. Balanchine's Swan Lake is basically Ivanov. He kept the essence of Ivanov and enhanced it. I took Balanchine's enhancement of Ivanov. So our Swan Lake has gone through many hands. I kept certain things, like the four pools of dancers in Act IV, with Siegfried going from group to group, but at a different pace and with different timings. But it's Petipa's and Ivanov's vocabulary, so it will look like a Petipa or an Ivanov dance."

Where the new production departs most noticeably from tradition is in the costume and scenic design by Per Kirkeby, a leading Danish artist with a big international career. The look is spare, abstract; the backdrops, awash with paint that drips like nerve endings, setting a melancholy emotional tone.

Kirkeby's costumes also announce a personal vision of the ballet. "There are some very bright colors here and there," Martins says. "We wanted to make this Swan Lake distinct from other productions in its palette. The traditional browns and grays of Act I set the pace. But I wanted it to be bright and sunny: updated in terms of colors. The Prince is the only person in that act who doesn't belong psychologically. He wears his own palette of colors. He doesn't match. Those decisions were very conscious."

Swan Lake's ending has always been particularly flexible. Sometimes Odette and Siegfried perish. Sometimes they vanquish von Rothbart and live. Sometimes they are subsumed mystically into the lake and are glimpsed sailing into an ethereal distance together. Sometimes they leap to their deaths, only to be apotheosized as they rise heavenward. In Martins' production, Odette is fated to remain a swan forever. The Prince is left alone to confront his failings.

"I thought this a much stronger ending," Martins says. "Siegfried falls in love with the White Swan and then falls in love with the Black Swan. So the moral tale here is that you've got to choose. You can't have it all. And when the curtain falls, he has to start all over. Does he learn? This we don't know. Do we ever learn? The dramatic impact has to be there, I realize, but the most important thing for me was the music and making dances. I'm not reinventing Swan Lake, I'm listening to Tschaikovsky."


Robert Sandla is editor in chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras, and writes frequently about the performing arts.

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