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By Martha Ullman West
Few ballets have proved so tempting to choreographers—or so challenging.
The plot of Swan Lake turns on a rite of passage: Prince Siegfried, reaching the age of 21, must choose a bride. The task of choreographing and performing Swan Lake is also a rite of passage. For companies, artistic directors, and principal dancers, it represents a monumental achievement. A failure when it premiered in Russia in 1877, it took the combined efforts of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov 18 years to establish the story of Prince Siegfried’s doomed love for Odette, swan queen by day and woman by night, as the quintessential classical ballet. Today, except for The Nutcracker, it is the most popular work in the classical repertoire. The Tchaikovsky score is magnificent; the dancing, even by the corps, can move an audience to tears; and the story is packed with universal truths. Plus, the ballet itself has countless opportunities for virtuoso dancing.
In 1940 Willam Christensen, who had never seen the ballet, had the nerve to create the first full-length American Swan Lake for the San Francisco Opera Ballet. All he had to go on was the score and the memories of Russian emigrés living in the city. As in the Russian original, the roles of Odette and Odile were double cast: Jacquelin Martin danced the other-worldly Swan Queen while Janet Reed, as the Black Swan, sealed Siegfried and Odette’s fate with those pesky 32 fouettées. The ballet toured the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest to rave reviews.
Recent radical departures from the original, such as Matthew Bourne’s and Christopher Wheeldon’s versions, still hold loosely to the Petipa and Ivanov template, Wheeldon’s more than Bourne’s. In Bourne’s, the prince is a member of today’s British royal family, and the swans—including the object of his affection—are male, displaying a homoerotic sensibility. In Wheeldon’s, for Pennsylvania Ballet, Siegfried is a Paris Opéra Ballet dancer in Degas’ time, and the ballet is his reverie.
This season three artistic directors are cutting their teeth on Swan Lake for the first time. Victoria Morgan of Cincinnati Ballet and Stanton Welch of Houston Ballet premiere new stagings this month. In June Christopher Stowell will mount Oregon Ballet Theatre’s first complete Swan Lake. All three are making narrative, musical, and choreographic adjustments with impatient 21st-century audiences in mind. Their versions contain the eloquence of the “white” acts and the snappy divertissements of the third act, but they are paring down the mime to make the ballet move more quickly. Although none is changing it as drastically as Bourne and Wheeldon, each has a distinct point of view.
Welch’s psychological take on the protagonists, plus his collaboration with the late Kristian Fredrikson (see “Transitions,” page 145) to reset the ballet with sets and costumes in pre-Raphaelite style, make this version the most untraditional of the three. Nobody, in Welch’s view, is either all good or all bad in the ballet. His prince, burdened by being the only male in a royal family, meets Odette late at night, when she is still in maidenly form. (It makes more sense, Welch feels, to have Siegfried fall in love with a woman than a bird.) After they meet, she tells her story, the dawn comes, and then Siegfried must look for her as a swan. In addition, Welch, who directs a company of 52 dancers (the largest of the three companies), will expand the cast to 70 with students from the Ben Stevenson Academy, the school affiliated with HB. He has also added a bevy of sisters for Siegfried and more hunters in the first act. “The hunters represent harshness,” he says, “while the swans represent nature.”
Welch’s von Rothbart is evil only some of the time. “He is protecting Odette in the third act,” says Welch, “by showing that men can always be misled.” In the lakeside scenes, von Rothbart appears in dragon form escorted by an entourage of four black swans.
Swan Lake’s ending has been changed so often over time—most notably by the Soviets who arranged to have Siegfried kill von Rothbart so the lovers could live happily ever after (they didn’t believe in an afterlife)—that it remains fair game for anyone staging the ballet. Welch’s ending, in which von Rothbart, tossing aside his protective role, uses Odette as a shield against Siegfried’s attack, has a film noir feel to it. Odette is killed by Siegfried’s arrow and returns to human form. Von Rothbart perishes as well, and the ballet ends with Siegfried carrying Odette’s body into the lake. Then he drowns himself and the lovers die happily ever after.
For Victoria Morgan, making the ballet relevant to 21st- century audiences is not an issue. “Swan Lake has the kind of mystery that makes it timeless,” she says. “It’s a mistake to stray from that.” Devon Carney, CB’s ballet master in-chief who is staging the lakeside scenes, agrees. “In the white acts there is a purity and a sweeping flow to the corps, as well as the magical love of Odette and Siegfried,” says Carney, who has danced Siegfried with Boston Ballet.
Morgan views the first act as an expression of community, with Prince Siegfried mingling among both the peasantry and the aristocracy. For a company of limited size, the spatial relationships, phrasing, and musicality are a challenge. “I have to be inventive,” she says, “since we’re not ABT or the Kirov.” Morgan is cutting some of the third-act divertissements, but is adding a dance for children to the first act.
Oregon Ballet Theatre has never done a complete Swan Lake, although some years ago they performed Act Two. And last season began with Stowell’s staging of Act Three, using Pacific Northwest Ballet’s old production, traditionally designed by Filippo Sanjust. “Because the production already exists, I’m working within defined parameters,” Stowell said, as he prepared to start choreographing in November. Stowell, who danced in both Helgi Tomasson’s 1989 version for San Francisco Ballet and PNB’s, characterizes himself as “a traditionalist who respects rather than reveres.” In a nod to the Portland origins of both Jacquelin Martin and Janet Reed, he will double cast some performances.
Stowell sees Odette’s dual swan-woman role in Act Two as problematic. “There need to be hints of the swan throughout,” he said. “She can make the transition to human form, but can’t completely shed her avian instincts. But Siegfried and Odette connect as humans.”
Von Rothbart, as traditionally done, is also troublesome. “In most productions he is a ridiculous figure, and ballet doesn’t need anything to make it look silly,” said Stowell. “I want him to be an evil presence, a spirit, not too three-dimensional.” Von Rothbart appears with wicked gnomes in his entourage—and doesn’t dance.
For OBT and the Portland audience, the complete Swan Lake represents a rite of passage from a fundamentally pop culture repertoire only three years ago to a far more classical aesthetic since Stowell took over. And what about the 21st century audience? “Swan Lake has been re-invented so much,” Stowell says. “It is almost contemporary anyway.”
All three new Swan Lakes contain the familiar—and beloved—ingredients: the pageantry of the first and third acts and the otherworldly romanticism of the lakeside second and fourth. All tell the story of love and betrayal, of human fallibility, and the power of love to conquer evil. All give dancers glorious opportunities to develop characters and students the chance to perform onstage. For 21st-century choreographers making their mark with a ballet that bears the fingerprints of many predecessors, the devil—or God—is in the details.
Martha Ullman West, a Portland-based writer and DM senior advising editor, is working on a book about Janet Reed.