Current Issue #488

Swan Lake, the Very Shakespearian Ballet

Swan Lake, the Very Shakespearian Ballet

The St. Petersburg Ballet will soon bring Swan Lake back to Adelaide’s Her Majesty’s Theatre. Alan Brissenden examines the fascinating history of this immortal, even Shakespearian ballet.

At its 1877 premiere in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre, Swan Lake was a resounding flop. The choreography was by a hack, Julius Reisinger, the ballerina, Pauline Karparkova, was past her prime and insisted on replacing a few dances with some of her former successes, jettisoning parts of the music, and the audience disliked Tchaikovsky’s innovative symphonic score, which was played badly.

The music critic and composer Herman Laroche, a friend of Tchaikovsky, wrote he “had never seen a poorer presentation on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre”. The ballet nevertheless had 33 performances, but as time went on the scenery deteriorated and a third of the music was replaced with inferior stuff.

The disappointed composer had written to Rimsky-Korsakov, “I have long cherished a desire to try my hand at this type of music”. He promised a new score for production at St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, but died in 1893 before writing it. Alexander Gorsky, the Bolsoi’s ballet master, made a new version of the ballet in January 1901, which did not take, but in March 1894 Lev Ivanov, assistant to the Mariinsky’s choreographer, Marius Petipa, had created what became Act 2 of Swan Lake – the first lakeside scene – for a Tchaikovsky memorial program. Odette was danced by the Italian Pierina Leganani, who had made her Mariinsky debut the year before in a now-forgotten Cinderella.

Audiences liked the one-act version and Petipa decided to create a full-length work. He staged Acts 1 and 3, Ivanov 2 and 4. In contrast to the 1877 opening, the premiere on January 17, 1895 was a vociferously cheered success. Legnani now added Odile to her 1894 Odette but, using music from Act 1 variation, inserted her now-famous 32 fouettes which she had introduced in Cinderella.


This 1895 version, which was revised in 1935 by the great teacher Agrippina Vaganova, is the basis for most productions today. The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is bringing Swan Lake to Adelaide in December. With carefully chosen words, the company says it ‘follows’ the original 1895 choreography. As has already been seen, this most popular of all ballets has been altered, augmented, mangled and adored from the first.

Like so much else, Diaghilev introduced Swan Lake to the West. He scaled it down, first to two acts, in his 1911 London season, with reigning ballerina Mathilde Kschessinka and Nijinsky as principals. Incredibly, he chose for Nijinsky’s ballroom scene solo the tinkling music for the Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy. The Times wrote of the “characteristic display of his graceful leaps and bounds”. Later Ballets Russes seasons included a one-act version (Act 2) which became standard.

The first full-length version seen outside Russia was produced in Prague in 1907 by Achille Viscusi, and in 1911 Mikhail Mordkin presented in New York a version based on the Petipa-Ivanov choreography. But the most important was the November 1934 production by Nicolas Sergeyev for the Vic-Wells, now the Royal, Ballet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, with Alicia Markova and Robert Helpmann.

Australia saw its first Swan Lake (Act 2) during the Dandré-Levitoff 1934 tour. It was included in the de Basil repertoires in the later 30s, and was a regular with Borovansky in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He produced his first full-length version in 1957. But Australia’s first full-length Swan Lake was the National Theatre Ballet’s, at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre in 1951, making stars of Lynne Golding and Henry Danton. Peggy van Praagh chose the complete work to launch the Australian Ballet in November 1962 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney, with international stars Sonia Arova and Erik Bruhn.


Since then, versions of the ballet have proliferated. George Balanchine, co-founder of New York City Ballet, who made his own one-act version in 1951, declared “Swan Lake is always changing. That is as it should be … I suspect that artists will want always to change it, to recreate it or themselves. That is what many of us have done, and I hope will keep doing.”

Two outstanding recreations of recent years have been Matthew Bourne’s for his own company, Adventures in Motion Pictures (1995), and Graeme Murphy’s for the Australian Ballet (2002). Bourne changed the focus from Odette to a Siegfried, plagued by a sexy, domineering mother and his own sexual uncertainty. The swans were danced by men, sometimes tender, other times sinister vindictive, even terrifying. Murphy turned the romantic story into a powerful psychodrama. Odette, already married to Siegfried, becomes neurotic and commits suicide when he is unfaithful Von Rothbart and Odile were combined in a Stranger who eventually drives the Prince to self-destructive madness.

The ballet was widely interpreted as a gloss on the ill-fated marriage of Princess Diana and the Prince of Wales. Most recently, Stephen Baynes produced a version for the Australian Ballet reverting to the original story, using much traditional choreography but increasing the drama of Act 3 and the beauty of Act 4 by his own.

What fascinates us about this enduring work is the transformation of the human, not only from woman to swan, but the transformation that love can bring, the evil that can blind, and the transformation that sacrifice can achieve. In some ways, Swan Lake is a very Shakespearian ballet.

Swan Lake
Festival Theatre
Thursday, December 8 to Sunday, December 11

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