Swan Lake is undoubtedly one of the best-known ballets across the planet. Starting with its premiere – although very poorly received by critics – close to 150 years ago and including its use in a motion picture (which earned Natalie Portman the Oscar for Best Actress in 2011) in addition to innumerable revivals on the world’s stages, the work has long enjoyed immortal status.
We have to go back in time to better understand the highs and lows of this major classic. During the summer of 1875, the composer Tchaikovsky was invited to create a ballet by the director of the Moscow Imperial Theatres, Vladimir Begichev, who was himself responsible for the libretto along with star dancer Vasily Geltser, based on legends and tales – including The Stolen Veil – from German folklore. Excited by the financial offer (around 5,000 rubles) and the possibility of creating in a musical genre he had long dreamed of, Tchaikovsky set out to meet the challenge.
Unfortunately, the premiere of Swan Lake, in 1877, was an abject failure. Critics pointed to choreographer Wenzel Reisinger having no special talent, to the libretto being poorly constructed, and – insult to injury – to the music being incomprehensible. A few years later, Marius Petipa rewrote the libretto and asked the composer to revise his work. The result: the new version, presented in 1895 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, was a triumph. Tchaikovsky, alas, was unable to enjoy the success, having passed away two years earlier.
Today, Swan Lake is the archetypical full-scale academic ballet for the French, even though a complete version was presented for the first time only in 1958... by a Russian troupe, as it happens, and 47 years after an initial performance of excerpts from the ballet in 1911. Five decades later, in 1960, the work entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet. And some years after that, Rudolf Nureyev staged a resolutely psychological interpretation of the ballet in the City of Light.
A continual source of inspiration for creators for almost 150 years, Swan Lake has also been reinterpreted by the fiery South African choreographer Dada Masilo, who was in Montreal not long ago with a version in which the prince is gay, the dancers – male as well as female – wore tutus, humor was prevalent and emotions palpable. In 2016, French audiences got to attend a version on ice, with figure skater Philippe Candeloro in the role of the magician von Rothbart.
The version presented by the Polish National Ballet, although classic in its staging and, in that regard, fairly close to the original, features a ballerina smitten with a prince in the Russia of Tsar Alexander III. Inspired by a famous historical anecdote, Krizstof Pastor’s Swan Lake relates the loves of ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska, who incidentally was one of the first to integrate the 32 fouettés in Act 3.