Northeast Ohio dance audiences will have a rare opportunity to see a full-length production of Swan Lake, the most beloved of all the story ballets, at Stocker Center this Thursday. The Russian Grand Ballet assures us that this Swan Lake is the authoritative 1895 Petersburg production with the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (as adapted and revised by Riccardo Drigo) and choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It includes the Hungarian, Spanish and Polish national character dances as well as dancing by the Jester and the rarely performed Waltz of the Black Swans. What does all this mean? Let us give you some background.
Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky’s first complete ballet score but when it premiered in Moscow in 1877 it was not well-received. As Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest pointed out at the time, there was plenty of blame to go around.
“The poverty of the production, meaning the décor and costumes, the absence of outstanding performers, the ballet master’s weakness of imagination, and, finally, the orchestra…all of this together permitted (Tchaikovsky) with good reason to cast the blame for the failure on others.”
Various composers, dancers, choreographers and designers tinkered unsuccessfully with Swan Lake until Tchaikovsky’s death in 1893 when a creative dream team assembled. Lev Ivanov choreographed and ballerina Pierina Legnani danced in a highly successful version of Act II for a Tchaikovsky memorial concert; brother Modest wrote modifications to the libretto; choreographer Marius Petipa undertook choreography for Act I and III while Ivanov choreographed Act IV; and Riccardo Drigo, a composer Tchaikovsky had admired, made the necessary adaptations and revisions to the score.
That was the 1895 Petersburg production, and since then Swan Lake’s story of love, good and evil has been an audience magnet. “The Swan brings them out,” observed one of our dance mentors. But if Swan Lake is performed more often than other ballets, it is also more often abridged. We have seen many performances of White Swan pas de deux, Black Swan pas de deux and Swan Lake Act II but we have never seen a live, full-length, four act production, and that is the first reason why the upcoming Russian Grand Ballet production of Swan Lake is noteworthy.
Any traditional production of Swan Lake is built around a large corps de ballet of swans and courtiers, so it requires a large ballet company the likes of which are seldom seen in Northeast Ohio since 2005. As we remarked in 2011, there’s no telling when another big-ass Russian ballet company of 50 plus dancers will come to Northeast Ohio. That’s the second reason.
Nobody does Swan Lake like the Russians for a number of reasons. Not only are Russians and Russian-Americans justifiably proud of the enormous Russian contribution to the art of ballet, and not only does Swan Lake hold a special place in Russian hearts as the first ballet with a Russian composer and a Russian choreographer. But Swan Lake is entangled in Soviet and Russian identity like no other ballet. During the Cold War, Swan Lake was a staple of Soviet diplomacy; Nikita Khrushchev was obligated to attend so many performances of Swan Lake with visiting heads of state that he complained that swans had invaded his nightmares. For Soviet state radio and TV, continuous broadcasts of Swan Lake became code for political turmoil and a transition of power.
And so the Russianness of the Russian Grand Ballet would be reason number three except that, admittedly, the Russian Grand Ballet is Russian in name only. Artistic director Constantine Pinchuk readily acknowledges that his dancers are from all over.
“Our theater is an international project, and so is our troupe,” he says. On its website, Russian Grand Ballet describes itself as “founded by graduates of the great choreographic academies of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev and steeped in the history of classical Russian ballet.” So, we’re hoping that “founded by” and “steeped in” will be enough. Call us optimistic.
It has been our experience that a Russian connection is also important to the success of the Hungarian czardas and Polish mazurka in Act III. Whatever the national origin of the dancers and however hard American and Canadian companies may try, Russian companies are better at European character dance, a distinct skill set.
Speaking of national character dances, we’ve looked at Petipa’s Spanish dances with greater respect since we learned that he spent four years dancing and choreographing in Spain before he went to Russia. Those Spanish dances that Petipa choreographed for Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and Don Quixote are more authentically Spanish than we realized.
We’re excited to see a Russian production of Swan Lake that includes the Jester because that character is likely to be an exceptional dancer, better even than the Prince. This is because of a Russian and Soviet policy known as l’emploi, a word we translate as “type-casting”. The Prince has to be tall. The short, acrobatic, athletic guys are cast in comic roles like the Jester in Swan Lake and Basilio in Don Quixote. That was one of the reasons that Mikhail Baryshnikov defected; he was short so he never got cast as the Prince. He had to come to the West where less rigid casting policies allowed him to get the leading roles that his artistry merited.
We had never before heard of the Waltz of the Black Swans but Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets mentions it in his description of Act IV and YouTube quickly comes up with this video of the Mariinsky performing Waltz of the Black and White Swans.
Which brings us to the very pertinent question. How good is the Russian Grand Ballet Swan Lake?Search YouTube and you’ll find some very nice videos of complete performances of Swan Lake by the Mariinsky here and here but only brief teaser clips of the Russian Grand Ballet.
For tickets @ $35 and $45 go to lorainccc/swan-lake/.
[Written by Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas]