Although Swan lake is now one of the world’s most famous ballets, it was not successful when it first premiered in Moscow, Russia. The original production of Swan Lake was previously called The Lake of the Swans. It was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1875 after he was given the task to create a ballet from Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, the intendant of Moscow’s Russian Imperial Theatres. Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840, in Vyatka, Russia, and he died in St.
Petersburg on November 6, 1893.
Tchaikovsky is one of the most popular composers because his music was powerful and filled with emotion and passion which can be seen in his most famous ballets, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky worked with the choreographer Julius Reisinger on the original production of Swan Lake, which premiered on March 4, 1877 at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, however it was unsuccessful after its first year of performance due to the complexity of Tchaikovsky’s music and the widely rejected choreography.
Reisinger’s choreography was criticized harshly for not corresponding to the music Tchaikovsky created. In 1895 after the death of Tchaikovsky, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov revived Swan Lake with their own revisions for the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. Marius Petipa is known as the father of modern Classical Ballet. His influence is shown throughout Swan Lake and this revised version began the success of Swan Lake and is still the most well known version to this day.
The ballet is a timeless love story based on a Russian folktale, and portrays the story of a princess, Odette, who was put under the spell of a sorcerer, Rothbarth, to spend her days as a swan and her nights as a beautiful human.
The role of Odette was first taken on by the Italian ballerina Pierina Legnani in 1893. She set the bar for every prima ballerina after her when she flawlessly preformed 32 improvised fouettés. This signature move was later integrated into the choreography and is still preformed today. The Swan Lake production I chose to watch was choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev based primarily on the revised version by Petipa and Ivanov. Agnès Letestu starred as Odette and Odile, José Martinez as Prince Siegfried, and Karl Paquette as Rothbart.
It is clearly shown from the beginning of Swan Lake that the dance style is classical ballet. The movements are precise with specific rules to follow regarding the position and movement of each body part, yet they are preformed with confidence and ease. The story is told through pantomime, gestures, and movements rather than words, so the music and lighting helps to create the mood of each scene. The choreography was smooth and precise while giving the audience an entertaining elegant show. The opening music is somber, however it has a light enchanting feeling when Odette is shown and the percussion adds the feeling of high intensity which mimics the performance of the initial battle between Odette and Rothbart. The costumes are exquisite and represents the traditional attire while incorporating a more modern take. The gowns flow elegantly with each movement while the full white tutu with the white feathered head piece portraying Odette as a swam creates a refined approach to represent venerability and purity. The costume used to portray Odile was a full black tutu with a black feathered head piece to represent the corrupt darkness of the character while still showcasing her beauty and elegance.
When looking at the performance of each dancer, I noticed that José Martinez had a strong stage presence which can be seen from the opening dance all the way through to the end of the production. Through his solos, I could see the control he possesses over his body. Each movement was strong and carefully executed while still showing a light and carefree persona. He represented the prestigious aura of the prince through the way he carried himself and his expressions. In every solo of Agnès Letestu, her movements are strong yet delicate and although she is the only one preforming she commands the stage and draws the audience in to focus on only her. She played the part of the shy sorrowful swan perfectly while still exhibiting her talent and confidence. As Odile, she shows the mature and unapologetic power that Letestu possesses. The black swan dance display her in a new light as conniving and eerie but still undeniably graceful. I noticed that as Odile her strength as a dancer is truly shown. In each pas de deux, duet, between Prince Siegfried and Odette, they moved fluidly with each other and they each held their own stage presence without overshadowing one another. The corps de ballet, ensemble dancers, scenes appear cluttered, yet the movements are very precise and graceful. The music and movements are coherent and the lifts create an illusion of flight and delicacy since the movements are being controlled to the ground rather than a harsh landing. The ballerinas seemed to defy gravity which continues through out the whole performance especially though out the pas de duex in which the male dancers support the ballerinas.
The swan dance in act 1 and the black swan dance in act 3 are by far my favorites because it showcases the elegance and pure beauty of Odette, as well as the power, precision, and corrupt beauty of Odile. Odette is shown as very cautious of the prince at first which connects to the illusion of realism. The movements in the swam dance are graceful and mimic bird like movements such as the elongated angled neck and the swift graceful movement of the arms to represent the wings of a swan. The black swan dance shows betrayal and power through the expressions portrayed by the imposter Odile. The fouetté sequence in the end of act 3 is beautifully done with control and elegance which is an extremely difficult and coveted technique.
One thing I noticed throughout the performance was that when the dancers move from one side of the stage to the other they move in a diagonal rather than in a straight line. This is especially seen within the corps de ballet. I also noticed that the ending was not the original ending Swan Lake was intended to have. The original ending concluded with Prince Siegfried fighting the sorcerer, Rothbart, and breaking the spell that turned Odelle into a swan, however this production had an alternate ending in which Prince Siegfried fights Rothbart, but the sorcerer wins. I have always admired Swan Lake and I believe the classic ending is far better, but I appreciated the poetic ending of the tragedy. I also recognized majority of the dance moves and positions throughout the performance due to my background in dance. I believe this gave me a slight advantage when watching the performance because I understand how difficult each movement is and the years of training it takes to be able to preform half as well as these dancers.