Articles from Ballet2000

The Swan of the Lakes

"Swan Lake" is the most enigmatic of the great repertory ballets. Or at least, that is how it has been seen by the many choreographers who have so far laid hands on it in order to "reveal" its hidden meanings: sometimes only by reinventing the setting and the libretto, while preserving the substance of the choreography by Petipa and Ivanov; at other times making a completely new ballet. That is what Mats Ek, among others, has done, and also Matthew Bourne, with unpredictable success.

It is impossible to discuss seriously at the present time the ballets of the classical repertory, without feeling obliged to clear the ground of the errors - I would call them theoretical if the term were not too strong - and the nonsense spread about by a certain class of fashionable critics. They form an obtuse, evil brood with regard to the values that are specific to dance, they look at a ballet just like cows watching a train pass (the simile was originally André Levinson’s), not understanding what it is and what purpose it serves, they (I mean the cows and the train) think - who knows? - that it is something to make a noise with. And that is perhaps what they talk about in their bovine gatherings.

In the same way, those critics, who are unable to see in a ballet what really counts, the dance - or it seeming to them, as they do not understand it, something of little importance - look for other material in it: the literary plot, the "dramaturgy" (as they like to say), or perhaps the music (but that is a mistake that belongs to past generations, when it was the music critics who wrote about dance; this is an error that thouse dance critics do not make, because of their lack of musical knowledge), the scenery and costumes, or perhaps the physical or expressive qualities of the dancers. The dancing, if they deign to refer to it, is just an accessory to them.

And now at last I have arrived at the subject of this article. Which is Swan Lake, and the confused manner in which people talk and write about the many "versions", whether classical or contemporary. If one does not clearly understand that a ballet is a dance work, that it "consists" of dance, just as an opera "consists" of music and singing, one may well believe that the Swan Lake of Petipa-Ivanov, the one by John Neumeier and the one by Mats Ek are different versions of the same ballet; or, at the most, that Ek’s is a "rereading" of Petipa’s. This is nonsense that can only circulate in an environment of dance criticism that is underdeveloped from an intellectual point of view. Not even the least informed opera-lover would talk about, let’s say, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut as if it were a "rereading" of Massenet’s Manon, and in fact everybody realises that if what counts in the opera is the music and if the music is different, they are two different operas, which will have different merits in accordance with their different musical value. That what counts in a ballet is the choreography and not the story is an elementary concept, but it it still far from being understood and perceived.

And if Swan Lake as a work of art is its choreography, that is to say, its dance, it is clear that different choreography (even if it has the same title, the same music and the same or similar narrative subject) will be a different ballet, a different, autonomous creation. The critics who out of personal bias defend what they call "rereadings of the classics" made by their favourite contemporary choreographers (as if Petipa and Ivanov’s Swan Lake were not beautiful enough, so that it needed to be remade) and the "purists" who are scandalised when Matthew Bourne takes the title and the music and modifies the subject in order to make a choreographic work that is completely modern and all his own (as if by doing so he wanted or was able to spoil the "classical" ballet, or as if the sin of desecration stopped him from making a fine ballet) are equally foolish.

To sum up, there are different ballets by different choreographers and belonging to different periods, that are called Swan Lake to music by Tchaikovsky and on subjects that derive, in various ways, from the same 19th century libretto. Naturally, the same applies to all the other repertory titles. I am talking here about Swan Lake because its mysterious, symbolic subject has lent itself more often and better than others to stimulating the imaginations of choreographers.

So, by keeping hold of the criteria, which are in any case very elementary, that I have set out in the preceding paragraphs, it will be possible to put in order the various productions of Swan Lake that are around at the moment, dividing them into three categories, which correspond with three objectives and choreographic works that are very different one from another.

The first, and most obvious, one concerns reproductions of the "classic" Swan Lake. The masterpiece that they all go back to is Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s ballet 1895 production - and that not because it was historically the first. In fact it was not. The first production dates from 1877, in Moscow, with choreography by one Julius Reisinger, which was probably mediocre and determined its lack of success (confirming my criterion, according to which a ballet is its choreography, and it is on that that its value depends). Nor did the 1880 production by Joseph Hansen fare better. It was necessary to wait for the production by Petipa and Ivanov at St Petersburg, which was a triumph, and on the basis of that the ballet began its long career as a classic of the repertory. That career has a Russian basis, but the matter is complicated, and this is not the place to discuss it. Dance is not written down (or rather, was not written down, other than rarely and vaguely), and the choreography of a 19th century ballet reaches us today through a series - that is often not even continuous - of revivals, reproductions, adaptations in taste, and technical innovations, over whole generations of ballet masters, teachers and dancers who are sometimes concerned with fidelity to the past, but not all of them, to a point where it is possible to talk of "a masterpiece by accumulation". The choreography of Swan Lake that we see today could, therefore, be described as "by Petipa and Ivanov and their century-long reconstructors".

As a result, the qualitative differences in the numerous productions of Swan Lake that can be seen around the world today depend on the competence, the choreographic culture and the stylistic taste of the choreographers and répétiteurs who have staged them. Among the most reliable productions the first place must obviously be given to the Kirov Ballet, the company of the Maryinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, where the Petipa-Ivanov ballet was first performed, and where the tradition of the Petipa repertory has been best preserved, and with greatest continuity (not to mention the quality of the dancers).

The London Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake, which is by now a distant descendant of the first, fundamental production in Europe, by Nicholas Sergeyev for the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1934, has a claim to authenticity. At the Paris Opéra, the most familiar version is the one by Vladimir Bourmeister, which has frequently been performed there, from 1960 down to the present day (also elsewhere). However, it contains things that are not very convincing to a present-day audience. At La Scala, Milan, for several years a production by John Field, which was largely based on the Royal Ballet one, was performed. In the United States, American Ballet Theatre has always possessed a good traditional production of Swan Lake, which has now been revised by the current director, Kevin McKenzie. Alicia Alonso produced an authoritative Swan Lake for her Cuban company, in which she also danced. At this point I must interrupt what would become a real world tour.

The second category is made up of reworkings of the classic Swan Lake, with the choreography remaining wholly or partly unchanged, and therefore "traditional" in the sense clarified above. The choreographer therefore usually modifies the scenario, the setting and the characters, in order to make clear certain symbolic or psychological points or to invent new ones. The changes in the choreography come in the mime and some secondary dances, while the famous passages (such as the second act with the swan-maidens, or the third-act pas de deux) are for the most part retained.

Unfortunately, it is this sort of operation that tends to attract ex-dancers without choreographic talent, whom nobody would ask to make an original ballet, but who, on the other hand, do not wish to limit themselves to reproducing a classical ballet. So they invent variations on the story, they set it in a different time or place, with fancy scenery and costumes, they mess up the choreography a bit, they remake some of the dances (making them less satisfactory, given the improbability of improving the original masterpiece), and that way they get their name in the programme (and also the fee), as if they were real choreographers.

Of the many offerings of this kind that afflict dance stages, the soggiest Swan Lake that has ever come my way is the one by Yuri Vámos, in the Düsseldorf repertory (this Hungarian dancer being the director of the company there). Right from the Prologue, in which the infant Prince (and the audience) see the Queen Mother and the tutor making love without any restraint, up to the last act, in which the neurotic Prince kills the Swan – and the corpse falls on to the stage looking like a sort of straw-stuffed cockerel – there is such a series of pieces of nonsense that it leaves you in a state of consternation. To start with, it seems like a joke, but when you realise it isn’t, and that the choreographer had very serious and dramatic intentions, the whole thing takes on a surreally comic air.

A much more respectable production, which has met with great success in several theatres, is the one made by Rudolf Nureyev, which was reworked on various occasions before reaching its definitive version, which is still in the repertory of the Paris Opéra Ballet and at La Scala, Milan. Nureyev changed above all the role of the Prince, by enlarging it, as he did that of von Rothbart (which he danced himself in later years), and he made the ballet as a whole more elegant and modern. His choreographic contributions are, as always, unmusical and infelicitous, but they do not have too negative an effect on the substance of the ballet, which he had known very well in his youth, from his time at the Kirov.

However, the masterpiece in this genre is John Neumeier’s Illusionen - wie Schwanensee (literally, "Illusions - like Swan Lake"), for the Hamburg Ballet, which has its place in this category only because it retains the classic choreography for Act 2, but which would perhaps be more correctly considered an original ballet. For a more extended comment, you can turn to the review in this issue of the recent performances in Paris.

The third group of my subdivision - which is not really so neatly defined, but is theoretically not at all arbitrary - is made up of original creations that take their inspiration from the old Swan Lake, retaining its music and title, but the choreography of which is a completely new and personal invention of the present-day author. Therefore, as I said earlier, from the dance point of view it is absolutely improper to consider these as new versions or "reworkings" of the same ballet: they are, in effect, new ballets.

I will just mention a post-modern Swan Lake made for the Aix-en-Provence festival by the American choreographer Andy Degroat in 1982, and the recent one by Bertrand d’At for the Ballet du Rhin, and then I quote the three most important contemporary ones.

Mats Ek’s production for the Cullberg Ballet is called in Swedish Svansjön, and although it is not considered his masterpiece, it is the most fascinating and personal modern Swan Lake, from a purely choreographic standpoint, for the way it plays with a poetic synthesis that is halfway between a non-literal quoting of the classic and a pure creation, that being the incomparable characteristic of Mats Ek’s work.

From 1995 up to the present, Matthew Bourne’s production of Swan Lake for his Adventures in Motion Pictures has enjoyed an extraordinary success worldwide. We have devoted our cover to it, and it is written about in this issue.

Lastly, Le Lac des cygnes et ses maléfices, made by Roland Petit for his Marseille company in 1998, shows another way of treating male swans, in Petit’s classical-modern choreographic style, but above all using his theatrical imagination, in which the drama is always suffused with sensual irony.

Alfio Agostini

(BALLET2000 n° 51 – March/April 2000)