#Throwback Thursday: Swan Lake

The first #ThrowbackThursday of the year - Swan Lake!

Though the original production featured only two acts, most modern productions outside of Russia feature four. Some productions, in America in particular, also feature a prologue in which Princess Odette is shown being turned into a swan by the scheming magician Von Rothbart.

Rothbart turns Odette into a swan - Zurich Ballet

Act I opens on the celebration of Prince Siegfried's birthday. The dancing is interrupted by the arrival of Siegfried's mother, the Queen. She tells him that he must choose a bride at the ball the following night. Siegfried is upset that he cannot marry for love, and his friend Benno and tutor Wolfgang attempt to cheer him up. A flock of swans pass overhead and Benno suggests the trio go hunting; Siegfried agrees, and they set off for the forest.

Corps de ballet as the swan maidens - Mariinsky Theatre

In Act II, Siegfried has been separated from his friends and ends up beside a lake. The flock of swans lands nearby, and Siegfried aims his crossbow at them. Before he can shoot, one of them transforms into a beautiful girl. Though at first she is terrified of him and tries to escape, once he convinces her that he will not harm her, she tells him she is the Swan Queen Odette. She and her maidens were cursed by the evil Von Rothbart. By day they are swans and at night, beside the lake created from the tears of Odette's mother, they return to human form. The spell can only be broken if one who has never loved before promises to love Odette forever. Von Rothbart appears, and Siegfried threatens to kill him, but Odette intervenes; if Rothbart dies before the spell is broken, it will be permanent. Siegfried falls in love with Odette, but is forced from her side as dawn breaks.

Siegfried and Odette at the lakeside - Russian National Ballet

Act III features the pageantry of the ball. Six different princesses are introduced, and the Queen hopes Siegfried will choose to marry one of them. Their entourages perform their native dances for the guests. Rothbart appears in the company of his daughter Odile, whom he has charmed to resemble Odette. Siegfried has eyes only for her, and declares his intention to marry her despite Odette's attempts to warn him. As soon as he has sworn his oath to Odile, Rothbart reveals his trick. Grief-stricken, Siegfried flees to the lake.

Rothbart dances with his daughter Odile, disguised as Odette - Royal Ballet

In Act IV, Odette is distraught by Siegfried's betrayal and prepares for death. Siegfried's explanation of Rothbart's trickery makes Odette forgive him, but Rothbart still insists that Siegfried must honour his promise to Odile. He promises to ensure that Odette will remain a swan forever. Siegfried and Odette choose death rather than to live apart, and the two dive into the lake. Odessa's death breaks Rothbart's spell, killing him and freeing the other swan maidens. Some productions add the apotheosis, in which the swan maidens watch Odette and Siegfried ascend to heaven together.

The Apotheosis, with Siegfried and Odette represented by the two swans flying across the room -

Odessa National Opera Ballet

Many ballet companies have different endings to the tale; Konstantin Sergeyev staged a production in 1950 in which he swapped the tragic ending for a happy one where the lovers live happily ever after. This version is still danced by the Bolshoi and Mariinsky. In another version, Siegfried attempts to shoot Rothbart with his crossbow, but hits Odette instead and kills her. He then drowns himself in the lake in an attempt to join her.

Siegfried and Odette - Boston Ballet

The story was taken from Russian folktales, but it's exact source is unknown. The libretto was based on a story by Johann Karl August Musaus, a German author, but this only provided the basic plot outline. A Russian folktale called 'The White Duck' also bears some resemblance. The character of Siegfried may have been inspired by the King of Bavaria, Ludwig II; he was also called the 'Swan King', and is now known as 'Mad King Ludwig'. The origins of the ballet are rather obscure, and it is not actually known who wrote the libretto; the top candidates are either Vladimir Petrovich Begichev, director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre, or Vasily Geltser, danseur of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre.

The famous 'Little Swans' or 'Cygnets' dance - Russian National Ballet

The composer was, of course, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. According to relatives, he had already created a small ballet in 1871, entitled The Lake of the Swans. Begichev commissioned the ballet's score from Tchaikovsky in May 1885, for the fairly modest price of 800 rubles. The choreographer of this original production was the Czech, Julius Reisinger, who had been ballet master at the Ballet of the Moscow Imperial Bolshoi Theatre since 1873. Unlike Tchaikovsky's closely documented relationship with the ballet master of the St. Petersburg theatres, Marius Petipa, no such relationship can be discerned with Reisinger. Despite this apparent rift, Tchaikovsky finished the score in a year; his rush may have been influenced by his desire to write an opera.

Odette - New York City Ballet

Swan Lake premiered on Friday, 4 March 1877, at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, with conductor Stepan Ryabov presiding. The production was staged as a benefit performance for the ballerina Pelageya Karpakova (also known as Polina Karpakova), who danced the role of Odette. The cast also featured the Bolshoi Theatre's premiere danseur Victor Gillert as Siegfried, Olga Nikolayeva as the Queen, Sergey Nikitin as Benno, Wilhelm Wanner as Wolfgang, and Sergey Sokolov as Von Rothbart. Who danced the role of Odile is uncertain, but Karpakova may have danced a double role, as most ballerinas have done since. Another ballerina, Anna Sobeshchanskaya, was due to play Odette, but a complaint about her from a governing official in Moscow assured her replacement by Karpakova. Apparently she had accepted several pieces of expensive jewellery from him, and promptly married a fellow dancer before selling the pieces off, much to the official's chagrin.

Believed to be Polina Karpakova as Odette in the original Reisinger production of 'Swan Lake' for the

Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, 1877

Anna Sobeshchanskaya as Odette in Reisinger's original production, Moscow, 1877

It may come as a surprise to those of you familiar with Swan Lake to learn the the premiere was little more than a failure. Tchaikovsky's score was lost among a poor production, though several critics called it 'noisy, Wagnerian, and too symphonic'. Fault was also found with the choreography, which was called 'unimaginative and altogether unmemorable'; the story was scoffed at for its apparent German origins (Germany was not popular at the time) and the 'unpronounceable' names of its characters; and the fact that Odette (and presumably Odile) was played by a second soloist who was not well received - one critic called her 'particularly unconvincing'. Tchaikovsky's brother blamed the failure on the poor set and costumes, the absence of known and popular performers, the unimaginative choreography of the ballet master, and the sub-par quality of the orchestra.

Adelaide Giuri as Odette and Mikhail Mordkin as Siegfried in Alexander Gorsky's 1901 restaging of the Petipa/Ivanov production at the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow

The ballet, nevertheless, continued to be performed. On 26 April 1877, the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre, Anna Sobeshchanskaya made her debut as Odette. She had been distinctly unimpressed with Reisinger's choreography, and travelled to St. Petersburg to have a new pas de deux choreographed for her by Marius Petipa. Petipa used music composed by Minkus, outraging Tchaikovsky. To smooth things over, Tchaikovsky agreed to compose replacement music, to such perfection that Sobeshchanskaya did not even need to re-rehearse the pas. The ballerina was so pleased she had another variation composed by Tchaikovsky. The pieces were assumed lost until 1953, when it was accidentally discovered among the notations for Alexander Gorsky's production of Le Corsaire. It is still performed today as a separate piece, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Mariinsky production, St. Petersburg, 1895

Reisinger's replacement as ballet master, Joseph Peter Hansen, made considerable efforts to salvage the ballet. His version, which premiered on 13 January 1880 with Evdokia Kalmykova as Odette/Odile and Alfred Bekefi as Siegfried, was presented only four times before being dropped from the repertoire entirely.

Odette - Australian Ballet

Swan Lake's revival started in 1893, after the death of Tchaikovsky. Riccardo Drigo revised the score in Tchaikovsky's place. Drigo's version of the score is significantly different to Tchaikovsky's original, and is the score mainly used today. In February 1894, the director of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatres, Vsevolozhsky, organised to memorial concerts in honour of Tchaikovsky. The production included Act II of Swan Lake, choreographed by Petipa's protege Lev Ivanov, and was hailed as a great success. Odette was danced by the great ballerina Pierina Legnani, and her success in the role led a full-scale production of the ballet to be scheduled for the 1894-1895 season. The assassination of Tsar Alexander III in 1894 brought the theatre to a rare stop during the official mourning period; this allowed Petipa and Ivanov time to collaborate on the revival of Swan Lake. Ivanov choreographed Acts II and IV, Petipa Acts I and III. The ballet premiered on Friday, 25 January 1895, starring Legnani as Odette/Odile, Pavel Gerdt as Siegfried, Alexei Bulgakov as Rothbart, and Alexander Oblakov as Benno. It was a success, much more so than the original production, but was not on the same level of success as The Sleeping Beauty.

Pierina Legnani as Odette, Petipa/Ivanov original production for Mariinsky, St. Petersburg, 1895

Pavel Gerdt as Prince Siegfried, Petipa/Ivanov original production for Mariinsky, St. Petersburg, 1895

After ballerinas Pierina Legnani and her successor Mathilde Kschessinskaya had made the ballet great, it was inevitable that it be taken up by ballet companies outside of Russia. Productions of Swan Lake are far too numerous to name, yet almost all have taken their cue from the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov production. The San Francisco Ballet introduced it to America in 1940, where it has hardly been off the stage since. The San Francisco choreographer, William Christensen, employed the help of Russian emigres, including Prince and Princess Vasili Alexandrovich of Russia, to ensure he was as close as possible to the Petipa/Ivanov staging.

Rothbart and Odette - English National Ballet

My own favourite version currently available is the 2000 American Ballet Theatre production, which I have linked below. The production stars Gillian Murphy as Odette/Odile and Angel Corella as Siegfried, and is truly worth the watch:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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