It’s no wonder that San Francisco Ballet has once more brought its production of Swan Lake to the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. It’s a ballet that has absolutely everything – a magnificent score, captivating choreography, and a plot which revolves around a passionate love story, taking on the battle between good and evil. Visually, it’s awe-inspiring as well, with some fascinating contrasts – the crystalline white tutus of the swan maidens against the colorful costumes of the character dances, and the settings which move from the lake in the forest to the grandeur of the royal household. So, despite its rather inauspicious introduction to the world, it’s not hard to see why Swan Lake has been a work beloved of ballet-going audiences for over the past one hundred years.
Tchaikovsky wrote the score to the ballet in 1875, in response to a commission by the director of the Moscow Imperial Theatre, Vladimir Begichev, who was eager to promote the artistry of Russia’s master composer. It’s also believed that Begichev crafted the story of Swan Lake, which was most likely to have been adapted from Russian and Germanic folk and fairy tales.
The original version of Swan Lake was written by choreographer Julius Reisinger, who is considered to be the father of Czech professional ballet, and who had been appointed to the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Swan Lake premiered there on February 20, 1877, but the production was not well received. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky’s music – his first for a ballet – was considered to be the weakest aspect. What he had composed – according to program notes from the Mariinsky Theatre – was a symphonic work that was “structurally unlike ballet music of the time”, and that such innovation “demanded similar inspiration in the choreography” – inspiration that wasn’t evident in that first production, nor in those that followed during the 1880s.
It wasn’t until 1895, following a concert held at the Mariinsky Theatre in memory of Tchaikovsky, that Marius Petipa, director of the Mariinsky Ballet company, decided to stage a ballet at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg, using the composer’s debut score. He and his assistant Lev Ivanov re-choreographed the ballet, and composer Riccardo Drigo was charged with revising the score – the version which most choreographers follow today. The premiere of this new and hugely influential interpretation of Swan Lake took place on January 15, 1895 – and it’s now acknowledged to be one of the most popular ballets in the repertoire.
There are probably almost as many variations in the interpretation of Swan Lake as there are artistic directors and choreographers, possibly because it’s sufficiently adaptable to accommodate a degree of re-interpretation without deviating significantly from its classical origins. In Helgi Tomasson’s production, introduced to San Francisco Ballet in 1988, he included a Prologue to set the scene for the story that follows, and changed the setting of Act I from the interior of an Imperial-style palace to a street scene outside the palace walls. This backdrop, according to designer Jonathan Fensom, was inspired by the architecture and decor of San Francisco’s City Hall and War Memorial Opera House, and the Louvre in Paris. While die-hard fans of the traditional version of Swan Lake might not necessarily approve of these changes, San Francisco Ballet isn’t afraid to be viewed as modern in its thinking.
Choreographically, Tomasson has also put his own mark on this version of Swan Lake – with the exception of Act II, and the Black Swan pas de deux in Act III. These remain true to tradition, and each retains its heart-in-mouth variation – the Dance of the Four Cygnets in Act II, and Odile’s thirty-two fouettés in Act III. Of the former, corps de ballet member Emma Rubinowitz says: “Corps de ballet work is always very challenging because you’re in such close proximity with each other yet you all have to move in unison. With the four cygnets, it’s an extreme because you’re physically connected – you’re essentially one dancer. It’s tiring and it happens so quickly, but once it’s over, even though you’re exhausted, you feel like you’ve accomplished something great together.”
Dancers are unlikely to be put off by a challenge, though, as the dual role of Odette/Odile proves. It’s one of those which is widely coveted, despite the extreme level of technical expertise required, and also the huge emotional price it exacts from a dancer in portraying two very different characters – the gentle, almost fragile, Odette, and the steely, conniving Odile. Dancers, however, are not known to have chosen their profession for an easy life!
San Francisco Ballet, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra conducted by Martin West, performs Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake at the War Memorial Opera House until April 15. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.
San Francisco Ballet program notes – by Cheryl A Ossala
Mariinsky Theatre program notes
The Royal Opera House program notes