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Swan Lake springs eternal

Poorna Swami | Updated on January 10, 2018

Twists and turns: Throughout its 140-year history, the Swan Lake ballet hasn’t abided by a single tale, each plot change widening its definition and reach

Black and white: After many reimaginings, Swan Lake persists as patchwork, still trying to make sense of itself

Black and white: After many reimaginings, Swan Lake persists as patchwork, still trying to make sense of itself

Real beauty: As more nuanced, connotative readings of Swan Lake emerged, people understood the ballet less and less as just a series of fairytale images

Real beauty: As more nuanced, connotative readings of Swan Lake emerged, people understood the ballet less and less as just a series of fairytale images

Looking back at its less-than-fortunate origins, it’s remarkable how Tchaikovsky’s ballet not only survived but also lived multiple lives

When it premièred 140 years ago, it wasn’t destined to live on. One of the most internationally recognised ballets today, Swan Lake opened to disappointing reviews at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, as it is now known. Audiences didn’t care for this new ballet based on a German fairytale and Russian folklore. The critics found the choreography bland, and the music “too noisy” and “too symphonic” for dance. Even the ballerina originally cast for the main role backed out after a few rehearsals, saying the music bored her.

Swan Lake was the first work of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who would go on to be hailed as a masterful ballet composer, with other beloved works such as Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker to his credit.

The first ever production of Swan Lake was marred by a turbulent working relationship between Tchaikovsky and its choreographer, Julius Reisinger. This led to much disparity between movement and sound, which was probably the cause for the ballet’s poor initial run. Still, despite its failure to impress the Russian public, Swan Lake continued to play at Bolshoi Theatre. Two years later, when Reisinger left Moscow, Joseph Hansen took over the production and attempted to rework the choreography. A new version premièred in 1880, but it, too, left audiences cold.

The fate of Swan Lake may well have been doomed with such inauspicious beginnings, but the artistic elite of Tsarist Russia continued to show interest in Tchaikovsky’s complex score, as did the composer himself, who didn’t give up on it. He began reviving the ballet, this time choreographed by Marius Petipa and his assistant, Lev Ivanov, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. Tragically, before the production could be completed and premièred, Tchaikovsky died in 1893.

At a memorial concert for the composer a few months later, an excerpt of the upcoming production was performed in St Petersburg. But the audience turnout was slim as the tickets were overpriced. Those who attended were, like audiences before them, underwhelmed by the piece.

What caught everyone’s attention, however, was its prima ballerina Pierina Legnani’s performance, which was lauded by critics, including one who called it a “magnificent success”. The full-length Mariinsky Theatre revival of Swan Lake opened in 1895. It featured additional music by Riccardo Drigo and dramaturgical alterations by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest. With audiences deeming the choreography exciting, its music less confusing, and its plot less tragic, the 1895 revival finally brought Swan Lake what could more or less be considered success. Down the years, most productions of this ballet have based themselves on the choreography and score of this modified version, and few have since returned to Tchaikovsky’s more unwieldy original score.

Multiple lives

Compared with the resounding success of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, the revised 1895 Swan Lake had a fairly understated run, with only 16 performances. Although people spoke well of it now, Swan Lake was by no means considered a seminal work. Today, there are more than 70 productions of Swan Lake around the world. Movies as different as the animated children’s film The Swan Princess (1994) and the dark, Oscar-winning psychological drama Black Swan (2010) are based on the classic ballet. There have even been queer interpretations, such as the one by South African choreographer Dada Masilo.

Several productions of Swan Lake have travelled internationally, including to countries that have no real ballet culture of their own. India has hosted Swan Lake — both excerpted and unedited versions — through the decades as part of diplomatic missions and government-sponsored tours of the Bolshoi Ballet. Four years ago, the Nehru Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai streamed the production live from Russia. Looking back at its less-than-fortunate origins, it’s remarkable how Swan Lake not only survived but also lived multiple lives.

The easiest explanation is that its story is universal. Tales of fated love and the struggle between good and evil can be found in the myths and folklore of disparate cultures. Swan Lake is a fairytale about Princess Odette, who has been cursed by an evil sorcerer, Baron Von Rothbart, to live as a swan by day and a woman only at night. Prince Siegfried, while hunting, chances upon the lake with swans. About to be hunted, the swans turn into women, and Siegfried falls in love with their leader, Odette. She promises to attend the ball at which he means to choose a wife — the understanding being that by choosing Odette he will break her curse. But disaster strikes when Von Rothbart uses magic to disguise his own daughter as Odette. At the ball, Siegfried professes his love to the imposter and shatters all hope of releasing the real Odette from her curse. Siegfried then goes searching for her, to beg her forgiveness. He finds her distraught among her swan companions, and she finally dies of sorrow in his arms. The water from the lake then rises in a giant flood, which consumes them both.

But this story alone — which featured in the first 1877 production — is not Swan Lake. Throughout its history, the ballet hasn’t abided by a single tale. In the ending of the 1895 revival, for instance, the lovers choose to jump into the lake and unite in an apotheosis. In the early-20th century productions of Soviet Russia, where a tragic end was considered unacceptable by the State, Siegfried battles and kills Von Rothbart, and the lovers live happily ever after. In yet another version, Odette remains a swan and Siegfried is left to ponder his own failings.

Strength in inconsistency

With so many different renditions and unique endings, its very inconsistency has enabled the ballet to endure for so long. Each plot change has widened its definition and reach, offering choreographers more variations to work with and push against; it is not typical for a classical piece to offer so much creative freedom. The reasons for the alterations have been as varied as artistic trends, political restrictions, and testy collaborations, all contributing to Swan Lake’s history as one of aesthetic fissures.

The many differing productions of Swan Lake seem disjunctive not just against each other but often also when examined within themselves. In a Soviet version, a happy ending between the lovers might seem jarring against the music’s more tragic crescendo, and Petipa and Ivanov’s sections in the revival remain markedly different in aesthetic.

During its rejection in its initial years, Swan Lake survived because of historical contingencies — such as Bolshoi Theatre’s decision to continue staging a failed ballet and Legnani’s stellar performance — but the 1895 revival, with its internal choreographic mismatch and sacrificial ending, spurred a genuine interest in the ballet’s story and its possible meanings. For instance, when Mathilde Kshesinskaya replaced Legnani in the Mariinsky Theatre’s version in 1901, critics focused on her poetic embodiment of Odette’s trauma rather than on just the physical virtuosity of the movement that Legnani had been associated with. Now, more nuanced, connotative readings of Swan Lake emerged and people understood the ballet less and less as a series of fairytale images.

That exactly the same choreography for exactly the same story could inspire contrasting readings points to the loose ends that festoon the very existence of Swan Lake — people never put it together in the same way.

A ballet created by a patchy history of failures, erasures, and re-inscriptions, Swan Lake persists as patchwork, still trying to make sense of itself. And people have been unable to abandon pursuit of it because it remains unresolved at multiple levels — like the great philosophers, writers, and artists through the ages, we, too, return most to what we do not fully understand.

‘Swan Lake’ will be performed by the Russian Royal Ballet from Ukraine at Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, on September 22-24

Poorna Swami is a writer and dancer based in Bengaluru

Published on September 22, 2017

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